The History Curriculum Controversy

“History-writing is a way of getting rid of the past,” the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said. Not in Taiwan, though, where a complicated past continues to intrude on the politics of the present, as witnessed in last summer’s student protests against proposed changes to the high school history curriculum.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) approved what it termed “minor adjustments” to high school textbooks on January 27 this year, two days prior to the Lunar New Year holiday, and officially announced the adjustments late in the evening of February 10. The changes, the second round of curriculum revisions introduced by the Ma Ying-jeou administration, were to be implemented this fall for the entering class of high school freshmen.

Over the summer, however, high school students formed an umbrella organization – the Northern Taiwan Anti-Curriculum Changes Alliance, representing groups from some 200 schools – to protest the revisions. The students objected, for example, to references to China as “mainland China,” suggesting that Taiwan and China are a single country, with Taiwan being just an offshore island. They also questioned such proposed wording as changing “the period of Japanese rule” to “the period of Japanese colonial rule,” and describing the periods of Dutch and Spanish rule as the eras of Dutch and Spanish invasion.

In addition, the students challenged the process under which the changes were made. Student leader Liao Chung-lun said the revisions “were rushed past a small panel of academics who were not even experts in the subjects under discussion.”

The task force responsible for making and implementing the curriculum changes was jointly headed by Minister of Education Chiang Wei-ing and Wang Hsiao-po, a professor of Chinese language and philosophy at Shih Hsin University who is also vice chairman of the Alliance for Reunification of China. Another member of the team was Pan Chao-yang of National Taiwan Normal University’s Department of East Asian Studies, who has been an outspoken opponent of Taiwan forming political alliances with the United States or Japan, lest it become a “traitor” to the Han Chinese. According to critics, of the 10 members of the task force, four are professors of Chinese language and philosophy who have little professional familiarity with Taiwanese history.

Chen Tsui-lien, a specialist in Taiwanese history at National Taiwan University, told Foreign Policy magazine that the textbook revisions were “politically motivated” and whitewashed such events as the “White Terror,” the Kuomintang government’s suppression of Taiwanese independence and Communist sympathizers from the 1950s into the 1970s.

Angry student protesters burned photos of Minister of Education Wu Se-hwa.
Angry student protesters burned photos of Minister of Education
Wu Se-hwa.

In late July the Alliance led a series of street protests outside the MOE building that culminated in a late night break-in and brief occupation of the ministry complex. The student protestors were met with police resistance, and 33 people, including three reporters, were taken into custody on suspicion of criminal trespass, obstruction, and vandalism.

The incident created an uproar, with pundits and politicians of all stripes weighing in on the issue. Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen described the crackdown on the students as “an international joke,” and independent Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je labeled Wu Se-hwa, Chiang Wei-ing’s successor as Education Minister, a “henchman” before retracting the remark.

According to Deputy Minister of Education Lin Teng-chiao, the ministry has dropped all civil charges against the activists. But responsibility for pursuing criminal charges, such as obstruction of justice, rests with the prosecutors, and on October 22 the Taipei District Prosecutors’ Office announced the indictment of five activists on charges of obstruction of justice and coercion, while dropping charges against another 22.

History remains a living issue in Taiwan, and since Taiwan’s first democratic presidential election in 1996, each of the three presidential administrations has quietly made alterations to public school history books to suit their perspectives. Lee Teng-hui, the first democratically elected president and the first ethnic Taiwanese to serve as chief of state, replaced a China-centric focus with one that paid more attention to the history, geography, and culture of Taiwan. His successor, Chen Shui-bian of the DPP, made further Taiwan-centric changes in 2006, when the school curriculum began to distinguish between Taiwanese and Chinese history and taught them as separate topics.

Taiwan is hardly the only example of controversy over how history is presented. Last December the Wall Street Journal reported that Japan’s foreign ministry asked U.S.-based publisher McGraw-Hill to revise passages regarding “comfort women” in a textbook. Critics accuse the Japanese government of attempting to minimize the atrocities its armies committed during World War II. There has also been a recent dispute in Texas school districts over history texts that referred to Africans enslaved in the U.S. South before the Civil War as “workers” and “immigrants.”

In Taiwan, the student protestors remain adamant that they are fighting for truth. “There are many social injustices that must be fought now, or they will become impossible to fight in the future,” Northern Taiwan Anti-Curriculum Changes Alliance leader Liao told the media, adding that standing up to injustice and “holding on to my convictions is the right thing to do.”