Tea Leaf Nation

Taiwan Has Its Own Textbook Controversy Brewing

Critics say the new history curriculum is an attempt to appease Beijing and sway Taiwanese youth toward unification.

People wave Taiwan flags and chant slogans during a rally near the Presidential Palace in Taipei on May 4, 2014. Thousands of Taiwanese calling for peace and the rule of law rallied in Taipei to counter a recent series of demonstrations that turned violent and led to clashes with police.    AFP PHOTO / Mandy CHENG        (Photo credit should read Mandy Cheng/AFP/Getty Images)
People wave Taiwan flags and chant slogans during a rally near the Presidential Palace in Taipei on May 4, 2014. Thousands of Taiwanese calling for peace and the rule of law rallied in Taipei to counter a recent series of demonstrations that turned violent and led to clashes with police. AFP PHOTO / Mandy CHENG (Photo credit should read Mandy Cheng/AFP/Getty Images)

TAIPEI — Japan may have perfected the art of stirring up textbook controversies in East Asia, but the self-governing island of Taiwan has its own storm brewing. A new history curriculum for Taiwanese high school students, due to launch in August, is part of a larger forthcoming education reform. But critics argue that the new history guidelines are an attempt by the ruling Kuomintang, the island’s Chinese Nationalist political party, to sidle up to mainland China and win new voters over to the KMT side.

The controversy over history education in Taiwan has been simmering for some time. In late 2013, a team headed by Wang Hsiao-po, a professor of Chinese philosophy at Shih Hsin University and a close friend of Beijing-friendly Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, began reviewing what it called a “fine-tuning” of Taiwan’s history program. The public announcement came in February 2014; the changes are slated to go into effect in August 2015. According to calculations by Chou Wanyao, a professor of Taiwanese history at National Taiwan University, over 60 percent of all text relating to Taiwan’s history will be affected, with most alterations relating to the period after 1949, when the KMT lost out to the Chinese Communist Party in the civil war on the mainland and fled to Taiwan. While some of the proposed changes are clearly technical, including corrections to textbook copy, other additions will not be minor adjustments at all, at least according to critics. It’s enough to stir up a new wave of controversy in Taiwan. Students from more than 150 high schools have demanded that the Education Ministry withdraw the guidelines. Small-scale protests have already taken place in cities including Taichung and Taoyuan, and hundreds of students attended a protest in Taipei on July 5. Even Sun Lih-chyun, the spokesman of the Executive Yuan, remarked in a video published by the Executive Yuan on June 15 that the controversy surrounding the curriculum has intensified “as if a small fire has become a blaze.”

The new curriculum appears to emphasize links between Taiwan and mainland China, which views the island as sovereign territory destined one day to fall again under mainland control. One of the more controversial changes revolves around Zheng Chenggong, also known as Koxinga, the famous Chinese warrior who drove away Dutch settlers in 1662 and established the first Han Chinese rule in Taiwan. (Han are the ethnic majority in the Chinese mainland.) Under the new guidelines, the period during which Zheng and the government he established ruled Taiwan will be called the “Ming Zheng” period, instead of the “Zheng Dynasty.” The change, critics say, suggests a connection between Taiwan and mainland China dating back to the Ming Dynasty, which ruled the mainland from 1368 to 1644. In fact, the island was never part of the Ming Dynasty, as Taiwan wasn’t under the administrative control of the mainland until the Qing Dynasty navy secured the surrender of Zheng Keshuang, the grandson of Koxinga, in 1683.

Other critics accuse the new history curriculum of portraying the KMT in a more favorable light. The so-called 228 Incident in February 1947, when a large number of Taiwanese protesting against the KMT were killed, as well as the nearly four decades of brutal martial law known as the White Terror that followed, will still be covered. But critics allege that the Education Ministry glosses over the KMT’s culpability for the White Terror — when communists were weeded out as a pretext to suppress dissidents — and takes too much credit for the island’s democratization. “When discussing the 228 Incident and the White Terror era, the guidelines stress that it was a result of the civil war between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party. Therefore, the government had no choice but to crush the uprising and arrest so many people,” Chen Tsui-lien, an academic specializing in Taiwanese history at National Taiwan University, told Foreign Policy. “The new curriculum also does not discuss the waves of social movement fighting for democracy in Taiwan [during the terror period] and simply says the bans on media and political parties were lifted under the KMT rule,” implying it was a result of KMT beneficence. She characterized the textbook revisions as “politically motivated.”

Others, however, have advocated the forthcoming changes as a matter of common sense. “In all countries, history textbooks represent the national stance,” said Wang Hsiao-po, who serves as the convener of the task force responsible for drafting the new guidelines, in a phone interview with FP. “In our opinion, the textbooks [sanctioned] by the Republic of China’s Education Ministry should conform to the principles and spirit of the­­ Republic of China’s constitution, in which de-Sinicization,” by which he means the rejection of Chinese influence, “is impossible. Without China, how can the Republic of China exist?” KMT presidential hopeful Hung Hsiu-chu echoed Wang’s view, remarking during a June 18 radio program, “Today, we are restoring it to the right track … at least under the constitution of the Republic of China.”

The roots of the textbook trouble stretch back to 2006, when Taiwan’s curriculum began to teach Taiwanese and Chinese history as distinct topics. The separation of Chinese and Taiwanese history opened the educational sphere to what some among Taiwan’s commentariat believe is an ongoing political wrestling match between the Beijing-leaning KMT and the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, better known as DPP. The administration of then-president Chen Shui-bian (no relation to Chen Tsui-lien), the first DPP member to rule Taiwan, proposed a set of curriculum guidelines scheduled for implementation in 2009. But those sympathetic to Beijing considered the forthcoming changes as tools to promote Taiwanese independence. After Chen’s term ended and Ma took power, the latter perhaps felt turnabout was fair play. “The administration is rushing to finalize the curriculum guidelines,” asked Gordan Hsieh, vice president of the National Alliance of Parents Organization. “Will they amend the guidelines once more after another political party comes to power?”

The adjusted curriculum may also be perceived as an attempt to rebuild KMT legitimacy among Taiwanese youth, an important block of new and future voters often suspicious of Beijing. Last year, Taiwan saw one of its biggest demonstrations in years — the Sunflower Student Movement, in which hundreds of students protesting against a free trade agreement with mainland China occupied the Legislative Yuan for 24 days from March to April 2014. Activists and media hailed the movement as a political awakening for youngsters, and the phrase “If the KMT does not collapse, Taiwan will not prosper” became a popular social media catchphrase. Then, in November 2014, the KMT suffered a landslide defeat in the local “nine-in-one” elections, in which candidates ran for more than 11,000 posts ranging from city mayors to village chiefs. According to a January poll conducted by Taiwan Indicators Survey Research, 76.3 percent of respondents said they were dissatisfied with the performance of the Ma administration, while 59.1 percent of pollsters rated the KMT negatively.

The DPP has a good chance of taking the reins of the island in the upcoming presidential election, meaning that a change in power may lie in the near future. Chen Tsui-lien said she hopes to see a speedy withdrawal of the proposed changes before the KMT’s political opponent takes power back. Otherwise, she warned, another curricular shift may “create the illusion that when another party is in power, the curriculum will be changed,” turning education into a “political tool.”

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Correction, July 21, 2015: Wang Hsiao-po, the convener of the curriculum task force, is a professor at “Shih Hsin University.” A previous version of this article misspelled the university’s name.

Correction, July 22, 2015: The name of the vice president of the National Alliance of Parents Organization is “Gordan Hsieh.” A previous version of this article misspelled his first name. Also, the June 15 video, in which Sun Lih-chyun remarked on the curriculum controversy, was published by the Executive Yuan. A previous version of this article said that the video had been published by the Legislative Yuan.

Grace Tsoi is a Hong Kong reporter based in Taipei. Her articles have been published in The New York Times and HK Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @gracehw.