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What is National Education and is it Indoctrinating the Youth of Hong Kong?

When it comes to civics and social studies, there can be a fine line between teaching students about their home country’s history and heritage and indoctrinating them with blind patriotism. Does this handout portraying the Yellow River as “the Mother River of China” cross the line?

When it comes to civics and social studies, there can be a fine line between teaching students about their home country’s history and heritage and indoctrinating them with blind patriotism. Does this handout portraying the Yellow River as “the Mother River of China” cross the line?

Some parents opposed to national education think it does. The lesson, which intertwines factual information about the river known as “the cradle of Chinese civilization” with emotional descriptions, is one early example of what the controversial national education curriculum may include.

In 2012, Moral and National Education was scheduled to be introduced to Hong Kong schools. It would have taught Hong Kong students more about Chinese history and culture and what it means to be Chinese. But after mass protests by groups opposed to this curriculum, the implementation plans were slowed down. Critics of National Education call it “brainwashing” and say it teaches blind patriotism and support of the Chinese government. There are also concerns about how the curriculum will treat certain periods in China’s recent history.

So far, there haven’t been many concrete examples on which to evaluate the curriculum. In fact, even with a broad set of guidelines, lesson material could look different as taught at different schools and by different teachers. Some activists were concerned about one school’s curriculum that included learning the artistic achievement of Mao Zedong’s calligraphy. Another book referenced in some curriculums was “The China Model,” which portrayed the Communist Party as “progressive, selfless and united,” while pointing out flaws of multi-party democratic systems.

This worksheet, which was posted to the Facebook page of Scholarism, an anti-national education activist group, is among the early examples of what “national education” may look like in practice.

It depicts the Yellow River as a motherly woman with flowers in her hair, and it says,

”I” am the distant long flowing Yellow River, the mother of the land of China, people call me China’s “Mother River.” As a descendant of the Fiery Emperor and the Yellow Emperor, how much do you know about “me”?

It asks some factual questions (the length of the river, the location) and some emotional questions (describe the appearance, character, and feelings associated with the river). The words used in the description seem very poetic, not just describing the students as Chinese people, for example, but as “descendants of the Fiery Emperor and the Yellow Emperor.” The Fiery Emperor and Yellow Emperor are legends considered as early leaders and influencers of Han Chinese in Chinese mythology. The phrase “descendants of the Fiery Emperor and the Yellow Emperor” is often used to refer to Chinese people.

The Yellow River is the cradle of Chinese civilization, as the Xia, Shang, Zhou, and Qin dynasties were all centered around it. The Xia dynasty is considered by Chinese history to be the first dynasty, although historians have not come to a consensus on whether it actually existed or is a myth. The existence of the Shang dynasty is verified, and its capital was at Anyang in northern Henan. The Qin dynasty is considered the first united imperial dynasty. Its capital was in Xian in Shaanxi, which remained the capital until the Tang Dynasty. So the Yellow River is very important to the Chinese consciousness.

Not just the Yellow River, other natural and (in the case of the Great Wall) man-made locations are imbued with feelings and patriotism to the Chinese. One of China’s most popular patriotic songs of the 1980s is My Chinese Heart, written by James Wong in response to his anger at the misinformation towards World War II contained in Japan’s educational curriculum. The lyrics state, “the Yangtze River, the Great Wall, Yellow Mountain, and the Yellow River as weigh heavy in my heart.”

On August 31, 2012, the Apple Daily reported on a similar lesson about the Yellow River. The lesson, which was given to students aged 6 to 8, also used heavy emotional appeals, referring to the warmth, attachment, and feelings of security associated with the Yellow River. Another lesson taught about the water resources of Jiangxi.

Apple Daily quoted one parent as saying, “Learning about China’s rivers, mountains, and plains is of course something I don’t oppose, but I don’t want children to think of the Yellow River as a mother.”

However many people don’t think such lessons are big problems. One Hong Kong person I showed the worksheet to said, “This is not really national education. Schools nowadays are like that, they mix knowledge with emotion. The model answer is you should always feel in your blood you’re Chinese.”

According to the South China Morning Post, national education has been partially implemented at 34 of Hong Kong’s 512 public primary schools. The article describes a critical thinking exercise wherein the students are forced to consider multiple sides of an issue and debate it. What national education itself rally is remains up for debate.


Filed under: China, Education, Hong Kong, Politics

About the Author:

Mitchell Blatt is the editor of map magazine and the lead author of the Panda Guides Hong Kong guidebook. Download his ebook about traveling in rural Guizhou here. has written 15 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Mitch Blatt is currently in: Nanjing, ChinaMap

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