Protests as history is rewritten


New textbooks have attracted criticism from all sides. By Yojana Sharma

Controversial history books are to be used by schools this month, after seven years' work by publishers.

When final versions of Getting to Know Taiwan were released in May, conservatives threw eggs at the education ministry building and threatened to burn it down. The editors received threatening phone calls, television discussions on the subject became ferocious.

"These texts are deeply political," said New Party (opposition) legislator Lee Ching-hua who believes the government's purpose is to promote the notion of Taiwan's independence from China. Critics on all sides of the political spectrum say the series is an attempt to brainwash students, although they acknowledge the old texts were out of date.

The education ministry is trying to please all sides and instil some sense of national pride in children by updating texts.

It is unclear how the education minister Dr Wu Jin will achieve a balance, despite over 160 amendments since May. Almost everything in the series is being questioned, including whether the 21 million inhabitants of this island should be referred to as Chinese or Taiwanese, or even the island's name, officially referred to as the Republic of China, and referred to in the books as the Republic of China on Taiwan.

New Party protesters have also criticised the portrayal of the period of Japanese colonisation which Lee Ching-hua said is written from the point of view of the colonisers.

A Japanese newspaper recently praised the books for highlighting Japanese colonial accomplishments in Taiwan. Critics say this reflects President Lee's own political bias. Taiwan's president, Dr Lee Teng-hui, was educated in Japan.

Attempts to provide more knowledge of Taiwan's own history have not been well received either. Indigenous Taiwanese groups protested that they had been referred to as "barbarians" in the books.

The series is an attempt to update textbooks which for almost 50 years had basically stayed the same as the Chinese school texts brought to Taiwan by the Kuomintang Nationalist Army.

Current texts concentrate on the history, geography and culture of mainland China which few Taiwanese have ever visited. Taiwan is described as a "province of China".

Until the end of martial law in 1987 it was taboo to focus on Taiwan's indigenous history, geography or literature. The ruling KMT viewed it as tantamount to promoting Taiwan's independence from mainland China, and promoting independence could even result in a death sentence.

Things changed with the election of the island's first Taiwan-born president, Dr Lee Teng-hui. The sense of national identity has strengthened and it is no longer illegal to advocate independence. However, political divisions over Taiwanese independence could take much longer to bridge than the seven years it has taken for Getting to Know Taiwan to be written.

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