Cheerful China?!

Please forgive the cynicism and angst but let me introduce you to an example of how unpalatable truths are kept hidden from children in schools. Some interesting questions here on the nature of ‘education’: at what point in a child’s education do you tell them about the political and human rights horrors of certain regimes, as opposed to merely the points of cultural interest.

My six-year-old daughter’s teacher has sent home a slip of paper asking for us to help create a mind map to see what out child knows about China..or even china. Topic title: ‘Cheerful China’. Do I hear dark laughter from some readers (in fact…are there any readers..?) As someone who has read books such as Tears of Blood – A Cry for Tibet by Mary Craig, or the equally distressing and compelling Fire Under The Snow Testimony of a Tibetan Prisoner by Palden Gyatso, the notion of ‘cheerful China’ seems naive and ridiculous at best. But how to approach this with young children?

When working as an English teacher in the 90s, potentially controversial issues emerged often as part of our study of literary texts. In fact, this is one of the great attractions of studying literature – stories become the mirrors within which we can scrutinise issues about humanity, morality, love, war …whatever. Unfortunately, the prevailing liberal wisdom of the time required teachers to strike a balance between opposing views, to remain impartial for fear of over-influencing young people’s views and ideas. Most of the time my own moral voice was screaming to emphasise the political injustices that swirled around life in the UK at the time. The dying days of the Thatcher and Major governments saw that party continue to shred the fabric of British society and prepare the ground for the economic woes then exacerbated by Blair’s rampant over-spending. But I digress..

The question for educators I want to ask is: at what age and to what extent do you introduce young people to the horrors of  certain regimes: in this case the current and past Chinese government. To state the obvious – China is a miserable place to live and work for many Chinese people. The disgraceful and shocking torture and cultural devastation, nay genocide, visited on the Tibetan population (including many monks and nuns) since Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ makes most sane people boil with rage, sorrow and indignation. And this is only exacerbated more by British governments’ repeated efforts at toadying up to current Chinese leaders because they desperately need their cash. Even under Blair, members of the Free Tibet Campaign who were present at a cavalcade for a visiting Chinese Premier were harassed by officials and required to take off their campaign t-shirts: in our blessed Blighty where there apparently we have freedom of speech.

I could go on – but read the two books listed above and you’ll no doubt feel the same anger. So, back to my daughter’s mind map. Do we suggest she includes important Chinese inventions (silk, rice, toilet roll) and a few china cups and saucers (we have a pretty hand-painted Royal Doulton set of china –  we could include that as an important cultural artifact and symbol of Chinese cultural and political supremacy, because it’s made of china – which has been suggested by the teacher..). Or – should we do an electronic mind map with links to various texts, YouTube videos, campaign websites and images of self-immolating nuns? I know what I’d prefer….


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