Images of Empire in Chinese Geography Textbooks


A Review of Images of an Empire: Chinese Geography Textbooks of the Early 20th Century, by Mats Norvenius.

School textbooks are interesting and tricky primary sources for historians to use. They often offer rather simplified worldviews due to their didactic function (especially those for school children). Yet they also provide us with “frozen pictures” (p. 14) of what the educated elites wanted the young generation to know of the world at a certain point in history. Mats Norvenius’s dissertation examines Chinese geography textbooks used within the framework of China’s first modern national educational system during the closing years of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Focusing mainly on the sections in textbooks which discuss human geography (descriptions concerning geographical environment and race, progress, government systems, social structures, etc.), the dissertation explores how the Chinese (mainly Han) educators viewed themselves and other inhabitants of the multiethnic Qing Empire, as well as the peoples of neighboring Korea and Japan.

The starting point of Norvenius’s study is James Morris Blaut’s argument about “European diffusionism,” an idea that pervaded 19th-century European historical and geographical scholarship (James Morris Blaut, The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History. New York: The Guilford Press, 1993). According to this idea, only Europe possesses true civilization, and cultural processes proceed from a European “Inside” towards a non-European “Outside.” In this dissertation, Norvenius asks the question of how Chinese educators, when introducing the subject of modern geography to students in new-style schools, dealt with the fact that China was implicitly being placed in a peripheral and recipient “Outside.” But Eurocentric worldview was not the only challenge for the compilers of Chinese geography textbooks. They had to, first and foremost, wrestle with narratives of Japanese superiority and Chinese backwardness prevalent in Meiji Japanese geography textbooks from which Chinese educators extensively borrowed. China’s first modern national educational system, established by the Qing court in 1904, was heavily influenced by the Japanese approach to reform and modernization. Chinese geography textbook compilers relied heavily on Japanese geography textbooks, sometimes directly copying from them. What did Chinese textbook compilers want the young Chinese to know about the world and China’s position in it?

The dissertation comprises nine chapters. After an introductory chapter (Chapter 1), which lays out the theoretical framework, points of departure, historiography, and primary sources of this study, Chapter 2, “Background,” discusses Japan’s move towards modern education during the Meiji period (1868-1912) and the extent to which Chinese politicians, intellectuals, and educators were exposed to and influenced by Meiji Japanese ideas, thus locating textbooks in their appropriate historical context. Starting in the 1880s, Japanese education was increasingly influenced by German ideas. The Prussian-style educational system adopted by Japan emphasized militarism and nationalistic loyalism. Working in tandem with the political/intellectual trend towards conservatism based on “Japanese spirit,” the Japanese educational system became more and more state-centered, nationalistic, and militaristic. In China, the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) sparked urgent cries for reforms. Qing education officials adopted Japan’s German-inspired educational system and embarked on a series of educational reforms in the first decade of the 20th century. “The teaching materials used in the new schools,” Norvenius explains, “were for the most part translated Japanese textbooks, or textbooks which drew inspiration from Japanese textbooks” (p. 88). The ideas on history and geography of Japanese scholars Shiga Shigetaka (1863-1927) and Ukita Kazutami (1859-1946) were particularly influential among Chinese scholars.

Chapter 3, entitled “Progress, Civilization and the Struggle for Survival,” discusses how Chinese educators perceived the world at large and Asia-China in particular under the influence of Social Darwinism. The European (and Japanese) discourse on “progress” had an enormous impact on how the world was described in Chinese geography textbooks. As the author argues, “The idea that different societies can be sorted on a scale ranging from the lowest level of savagery to civilization is found, in more or less pronounced forms, in all the textbooks examined” (p. 91). The term wenming or “civilization” was often used to signify Western attainments within the fields of statecraft, economy, technology, science, and the like. Asia, especially China, was implicitly put in the “half-civilized” category. The common understanding was that China at this point was lagging behind the Western world and neighboring Japan and thus must catch up to survive. It was frequently hinted, though, that the Chinese had the potential to regain their past glory so long as they stuck together and were ready to think in new terms. People in lower stages of social development, such as the nomadic peoples (allegedly the Mongols and Arabs) and the “savages,” however, were said to be stuck in their stages and lacked the initiative or capacity to evolve. Chinese textbook authors also placed their discussions on social development under a traditional framework by referencing passages in Chinese Classics and the Confucian utopia of Datong. The mentioning of Datong as the highest stage of social development put the Chinese on an equal footing with the Westerners by implying that the Westerners of today had not yet excelled the Chinese of ancient times in terms of constructing an advanced society. When discussing social development in racial terms, the Chinese educators stressed that the “White race” and the “Yellow race” were equally intelligent. Moreover, the “yellow people” surpassed the “white people” in their ability to endure hardships.

Chapter 4, entitled “The Lay of the Land and Its Influence on Man,” examines environmental-deterministic ideas as indicated in Chinese geography textbooks. “Geographical-deterministic ideas are found in all the textbooks examined,” the Norvenius writes, “and they run parallel to racist and Social Darwinist ideas” (p. 104). The main determining factors were climate and topography. Borrowing from Shiga Shigetaka, Chinese textbook compilers suggested that the mild climate of the Temperate Zone was the most conducive to human progress, while the extreme climates of the Frigid Zone and the Tropics negatively influenced the characteristics of its inhabitants. Yellow skin color was identified with the advantageous and promising climate in the Temperate Zone, whereas black and white skin colors were associated with harsh and extreme climates in peripheral zones. Despite China’s current problems, China’s lucky location in the Temperate Zone determined that the premises for China’s future development would be good. The physical landscape of a given area affected its inhabitants, as well. Shiga’s ideas were borrowed but also twisted by the Chinese authors. While Shiga’s remarks on the alleged characteristics of the “mountain countries” and “lowland people” were based largely on Western observations of European nations, the Chinese textbook compilers inflated the application of these terms and made them seem to be universal. Amongst various discussions on the so-called “mountainous countries”/ “lowland people”/ “maritime countries,” or the “people in the North-western part” vs. “people in the south-eastern part” by Chinese educators, one widely accepted notion was that high topography was a hindrance to development, whereas an environment which permitted communication via water was a good foundation for progress. This topographic influence on man allowed Chinese authors to make internal differences among people of different regions and ethnicities within the Qing Empire, as will be discussed in Chapter 7.

Chapters 5 and 6 discuss the negative and positive sides of the general picture of the Han majority, respectively. Chapter 5, entitled “The Alleged Roots of Backwardness,” analyzes the image of Han Chinese as utterly backward, emphasizing their lack of a soldierly spirit, unity, and a progressive mindset. This self-image was reminiscent of Japanese images of the Chinese. The Chinese, it was argued, were also plagued by harmful customs and practices, such as opium-smoking, footbinding, gambling, and extreme inequality between the sexes. The solution for these problems, argued Chinese textbook compilers, was to eliminate these evil practices and to adopt constitutional monarchism as the right path for achieving national unity and strength. China should also rid herself of ignorant religious practices, such as those of Buddhism and Daoism. Confucianism, on the other hand, was presented as a pure doctrine or philosophy that was free from all forms of superstition, and was compatible with development and progress. Chapter 6, entitled “Ancient Glory and Sources of Pride and Hope,” examines the image of the Chinese as an originally superior people. Textbooks claimed Asia to be the first continent to become civilized, and expressed great pride over China’s past glory. The idea that Western technology and science were derivations of ancient Asian wisdom was also present. Discussions on the Yellow Emperor and the origin of the Han people also highlighted the centrality of the Han as the originator of civilization and the victorious conqueror in the Middle Kingdom. “By describing the Han people as a master race which also had colonized vast areas and had triumphed in the battle of the survival of the fittest,” the author argues, “the textbook compilers likely wanted to emphasize that the Han people was equal to any colonial nation” (p. 161).

Chapter 7, entitled “Regional Differences Within the Chinese Empire,” examines the supposed regional differences between Han people in different parts of China Proper, as well as images of the various non-Han peoples within the larger Qing Empire. Geographical distance from the traditional civilizational core of China was partially responsible for differences, it was argued. But the element of the sea (in the sense of providing access to water transportation and exposure to international/maritime trade) seemed to play a bigger role in recent times. Chinese geography textbook compilers held the coastal areas in China’s southeast in great esteem and praised them for their wealth and refinement. The city of Shanghai was always described in a particularly positive light. The Cantonese and Fujianese were presented as progressive, enterprising, and as having an “adventurous [alt. risk-taking] disposition” (maoxian xingzhi) (p. 174), even though they were also noted as unrefined and profit-loving (undesirable qualities from a Confucian moral perspective). In contrast, China’s inland and frontier regions were presented in a predominantly negative way. For example, China’s southwest was described as backward, not only because it was isolated from fresh impulse of modern civilization, but also because of its remoteness from the Chinese heartland and the cradle of (Chinese) civilization. Tibetans and the Muslims were presented very negatively. Discussions of the Manchus were (understandably) few, but the general image of the inhabitants of the northeast was still negative. Descriptions on the Mongols were a bit more complicated. The Chinese praised their past glory as military conquerors, but noted that nowadays the Mongols had lost their dignity and strength and had become utterly backward.

Chapter 8, entitled “Neighbors of the East,” focuses on images of Koreans, Japanese, and Taiwanese. Chinese textbooks excluded all references to Japanese claims on the Korean peninsula, but they depicted Korea and the Koreans quite negatively, in the hopes of spurring reforms within China. “If the Japanese judgmental and derogatory descriptions of the Koreans are used as a means of legitimizing Japan’s colonial ambitions in Korea,” the author writes, “images of backward Koreans are employed in China to change the attitudes of the young generation by calling attention to the danger of rejecting change” (pp. 210-211). To the Chinese, Korea was an antithesis of Japan in terms of wealth and power. Korea represented one possible fate of China that they were trying hard to avoid. Correspondingly, they presented Japan positively and viewed Japan as a model of “what China might look like if it was re-energized by means of modern education, militarism, nationalism, constitutionalism and industrialization” (pp. 219-220). Chinese accounts on Japan-ruled Taiwan were generally positive and rosy. The implication was that it was possible to improve a Chinese society with effective reforms. The descriptions on monogamy and equality between the sexes among Taiwanese aborigines expressed a subtle critique of polygamy and gender inequality within Chinese society.

Chapter 9 concludes the dissertation with a brief summary and reflection on important findings in the dissertation. Norvenius suggests that, unlike Western geography textbooks of the early 20th century, China’s modern geography textbooks of the same time period do not reveal any signs of what James Morris Blaut calls “Eurocentric diffusionism,” but rather what might be referred to as “Sinocentric diffusionism” (p. 226). While recognizing China’s current weakness and the need for change, Chinese geography textbook compilers presented Asia as “the cradle of civilization where man took his first steps out of barbarity” (p. 226). For these compilers, China, now associated with a favorable climate and the advantageous yellow skin color, possessed a positive basis for cultural development. While borrowing extensively from Japanese geography textbooks, they reinterpreted some of their ideas in order to better fit China’s situation. What resulted was a rather complicated, and somewhat conflicted, worldview. They embraced Social Darwinism and presented Japan as an advanced model in the pursuit of modern civilization, but they refuted Japan’s expansionist claims. They lamented China’s loss of power and glory, while at the same time expressing Sinocentric views of the non-Han peoples within the Qing Empire. Chinese geography textbooks of the early 20th century were indeed what Norvenius calls “a multi-faced amalgamation” (p.89) that combined Chinese, Japanese, and European elements.

Norvenius’s dissertation is the first in-depth study of Chinese self-images in the geography textbooks of the early 20th century. Scholars such as Robert J. Culp and Peter Zarrow have utilized history textbooks to probe issues of national identity and citizenship in late Qing and Republican China (Robert J. Culp. Articulating Citizenship: Civic Education and Student Politics in Southeastern China, 1912-1940. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007; Peter Zarrow, “The New Schools and National Identity: Chinese History Textbooks in the Late Qing.” In Tze-Ki Hon and Robert J. Culp. The Politics of Historical Production in Late Qing and Republican China. Leiden: Brill, 2007). Noevenius’s dissertation contributes to this scholarship by focusing instead on geography textbooks. Although hitherto there has been a substantial amount of research on national images of China as encountered in Western and Japanese textbooks, the Chinese responses to such images have been somewhat neglected within the field of East Asian studies. The dissertation also pushes readers to reassess the Japanese influence on the Qing government’s educational reforms in the beginning of the 20th century. Following earlier works by scholars such as Jane Kate Leonard (Jane Kate Leonard. Wei Yuan and China’s Rediscovery of the Maritime World, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984) and Fred Drake (Fred Drake. China Charts the World: Hsü Chi-yü and His Geography of 1848, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975), Norvenius’s research, once published, will be a valuable contribution to scholarly understandings of late Qing history and society from a geographical perspective.

Zhihong Chen
Department of History
Guilford College

Primary Sources

Chinese geography textbooks published by Shanghai Commercial Press in the first decade of the 20th century
Liang Qichao’s essays on Chinese, Asian and European geography
Japanese geography textbooks from the 1880s to the 1910s

Dissertation Information

Stockhom University. 2012. 254 pp. Primary Advisor: Marja Kaikkonen.

Image: Image from Chinese textbook Zuixin zhongxue jiaokeshu yinghuan quanzhi (Complete Geography with Coloured Maps designed for Advanced Classes in Schools and General Readers), 8th edition. Compiled by Xie Honglai and published in 1906 in Shanghai by Commercial Press.