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UConn history professor studies Chinese textbooks, investigates cultural impact

Campus Correspondent

Published: Thursday, December 5, 2013

Updated: Thursday, December 5, 2013 23:12

When most people want to learn about the changes a revolution caused in history they study government documents or primary accounts of battles and reforms. However, a recent addition to the history department at UConn, Dr. Peter Zarrow, studies the cultural and intellectual revolutions in 19th and 20th century China through student textbooks.

Textbooks, just like the ones UConn students use every day, can provide a wealth of information about the goals of the government that published them. What information the books choose to include and exclude sheds light on the biases and messages that the government of a country like China wants its next generation to learn.

For his research project, Zarrow studied textbooks from late Qing China, the era of the Imperial Government, to after the revolution that unified China in the 1930s.

Zarrow found that in the beginning of this time, “textbooks in schools were modeled on Japanese examples – which were modeled mostly on German examples.” Therefore children in China in the early 1900s were studying information similar to children in the western world.

However, Zarrow says that it is, “striking how quickly new information got in to textbooks” throughout this era. He explained that this was possible because of who was being educated in China at the time. Textbooks weren’t geared for the entire population, only elite children, and therefore textbook makers, “didn’t worry about the students not understanding new ideas.”

These textbooks weren’t aiming to train just another batch of elite classical scholars. Students in this era were “no longer memorizing Confucius texts” said Zarrow. Instead, these textbooks were changing right along with everything else in China, their goal was to train “a new kind of elite – an elite educated in modern disciplines rather than modern classics,” said Zarrow.

For example, these textbooks contained basics of hygiene that would be important for city residents but never really mattered to the typical country dwelling Chinese child. It “informed students about germ theory,” said Zarrow.

According to Zarrow, these textbooks clearly reflect the goals of a “modern growing nation state,” not a country that is set in its ways and merely trying to educate its next generation about the past.

With this project basically behind him, Zarrow is looking to move on with his research through two different projects. The first will be an examination of utopianism in modern Chinese thought.

The second project will look at the history of China’s Forbidden City. He is hoping to analyze the functions that this city has served for China and how it transformed from the hated, but beautiful, dwelling place of the Emperor to one of the most visited tourist sites in China by not only foreigners, but also by Chinese.

Zarrow will launch these two new projects in the spring in addition to beginning his teaching career at UConn with two upper level classes, Modern China and a Special Topics Course that will focus on memoirs that have been written by Chinese authors.


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