The Beginning of History: Japanese and Chinese views of the World

David Turner


The teaching of history is an important way in which the older generation, who control education systems, curricula, content choice and so on, pass on to the younger generation ideas, especially the idea of nationhood, which they hope will form the basis for future national cohesion. The younger generation, however, receive these messages and interpret then through the lens of their own experiences, experiences that they do not share with the older generation. Consequently, the idea of history is re-formed and reformulated by each generation. This paper looks at the role of textbooks, principally history textbooks, in that process. The style of textbooks is to present history as uncontentious, a descriptive account of facts and events. In practice, however, textbooks can only present an arbitrary selection from history, and a crucial decision made by educators is when to start their account – the beginning of history – as this can radically affect the interpretation of events. This facsimile of neutrality stands in sharp contrast to the professional historians’ hope that the teaching of history can develop a critical sense of important and contested events in history. The discussion is illustrated with examples of how history is presented in China and Japan, and how the conflicting accounts serve the interests of the policies adopted by the older generation, but may have unanticipated consequences for the younger generation.


history; textbooks; China; Japan; generations; curriculum

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