Monday, June 13, 2005

The Importance of History Education in Hong Kong

Over the weekend, I had a chance to read Tristram Hunt's interesting comment in the Guardian newspaper, entitled: "Conscription of the Past." I have great respect for Mr. Hunt as an historian and for his work in urban studies. In this essay he argues that history should not be used for dogmatic ends by governments; as he says in his subtitle, "don't try to turn history into a simple-minded morality play." He suggests that the Tories had such plans up their sleeve had they won the last British election (they lost).

He compares the teaching of history in Britain, which he regards as pluralistic and allows students to reach their own conclusions, with more 'simple-minded' curricula in America, China or in the Balkans, for instance, that try to merge history and civic education to present the country's past in an overarching narrative as a struggle for the virtues it holds dearest. In America, that would be freedom and liberty; in the Balkans, ethnic virtue and superiority over others, and the remembrance of past slights; in China, it would be the superiority of its civilization and its suffering of injustices and atrocities at the hands of Western imperialists and the Japanese.

But I am afraid I must regard these criticisms as quite naive. The history of any nation has always been framed in terms of its greatest victories and successes, and is used as a rousing narrative to inspire nationalism. Benedict Anderson's seminal work, Imagined Communities, identifies these historical 'myths' as ones generated at the beginning of the age of the nation-state for consumption by its citizens to ensure their loyalty through identification with the state. Surely he must recognize that Britain has these historic narratives in abundance - the Magna Carta of 1215, the victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, and the defense of Britain against Hitler in the 1940s. All state-generated histories are political, like it or not. The question is more: are the values it generates in the citizens good ones?

So we come now to Hong Kong. Hong Kong is virtually unique in the world as its own history has actually not been taught to its citizens. Hong Kong people have therefore not had their own national myths that pound home the virtues and values the city holds dear. Of course, the dictates of the market (thanks Gordon Mathews for the narrative of the market vs. state concept) have ensured that the pursuit of property as a value has grown unfettered by other politically idealistic considerations. However, while the value of the rule of law and the liberties (without democracy) enjoyed by citizens are appreciated in an abstract way, these ideals have not been reinforced by an imprinting of these values on the city's young minds through its history textbooks. The closest Hong Kongers have to a historical narrative taught in schools is: Hong Kong is a city of immigrants. There were a flood of immigrants after WWII, and over the past half century, hard work and business genius has lifted the city from poverty to prosperity.

Now, history education was suppressed during the colonial period by the British for good reason: the Opium War was never going to be an event that would inspire loyalty in its mostly Chinese subjects. But now, after the Handover, Hong Kong is in desperate need of a history curriculum that both tells its young citizens of its history, and of how the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of property have transformed the city into a First World enclave. Belief in the rule of law as a fundamental concept must be firmly ensconced in the young minds of Hong Kong's schoolchildren; it is not really today. History education is the best avenue to do so, and to turn these young Hong Kongers into responsible, civic citizens.

The alternative is that Hong Kong is increasingly taking its historic narratives from China. That will make Hong Kong an excellent Chinese city, with Chinese values. But it will require giving up on the advantages to which Hong Kong has currently over the mainland - a system of law and justice that is fair. A relatively uncorrupt bureaucracy. And sense of protection of individual liberty. This last and most important developed without democracy during the colonial period, but it continuing integrity is going to be the result of continued effort to teach the value of these principles to the public at large.

This is why we see history education as having a vital purpose - because Hong Kong's history is an excellent example of what good government can do to raise standards of living. The darker parts of the past should also be acknowledged too, such as the Opium War - these legacies are not the responsibility of the post-Handover government, and can be made part of a historic narrative that makes sense of why we 7 million people are here on what was once a 'barren rock.'


Anonymous said...

I have heard (though I have not verified) that textbooks in Hong Kong no longer use the term "colony" when talking about Hong Kong's past, so that the history of British rule in HK could be toned down. If this is the case, there is really not much hope for history education in Hong Kong.

Dave and Stefan said...

Hi TP,

Interestingly, the word 'colony' was taken out of circulation all the way back in 1971. In the wake of the 1967 riots and the police corruption that was becoming apparent, the British government realized it needed to be more proactive to maintain the legitimacy of their rule - it was no longer enough to simply oversee brisk economic growth.

However, I suspect we will see the word 'colony' come back into HK history textbooks, whether the mainland China or the Hong Kong historic narrative prevails. We are finally starting to see local history curriculum development here too. Even at the ESF and international schools! Stefan and I gave a guest talk to some HK Int'l School students as part of a 5-week local history course. You are right that there is a long way to go, but I still think there is hope...