The Debate over “De-Sinicizing” School Curricula in Taiwan: Partisan Politics or a Reclamation of Heritage?

The Debate over “De-Sinicizing” School Curricula in Taiwan: Partisan Politics or a Reclamation of Heritage?

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The Debate over “De-Sinicizing” School Curricula in Taiwan: Partisan Politics or a Reclamation of Heritage?

During a press conference held on December 4 in Taipei–titled “Press Conference on the Overall Review of the Education Policy of the Tsai Ing-wen Government: De-Sinicizing History Education” (蔡英文政府教育政策總體檢記者會:去中國化的歷史教育)–Taipei First Girls’ High School (臺北市立第一女子高級中學) Teacher Alice Ou (區桂芝) criticized education guidelines that had been passed in 2019 as being “shameless,” and “a crime deserving more than 10,000 deaths.” In a move that was deemed by the “History Education New Three-Self Movement Association” (歷史教育新三自運動協會) as “de-sinicizing” Taiwanese education, Taiwan’s Ministry of Education (MOE, 教育部) 108 Curriculum (108課綱) suggested only 15 classical Chinese texts for the curriculum–a 50 percent reduction from the originally suggested 30 classical texts. According to Ou, the inclusion of classical Chinese text is not only important for language proficiency, but also for teaching morals and philosophy. The press conference ended with a series of demands, including abolishing the “Taiwan independence-style108 Curriculum

Reactions to this press conference were mixed. According to an internal poll of National Taiwan University (NTU, 國立臺灣大學) students, 38 percent of the respondents agreed with Ou, 23 percent disagreed, and the rest were neutral. In response, a 2019 curriculum review committee member pointed out that the 108 Curriculum simply provided guidelines for teachers. Additionally, the MOE stated that classical Chinese is not being abolished from Taiwanese school curricula, as it still accounts for 35-45 percent of high school literature textbooks. Presidential candidates also weighed in on the topic, with Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) presidential candidate Hou You-yi (侯友宜) stating that he would chair a national affairs conference to review the curriculum guidelines if elected; and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) presidential candidate William Lai (賴清德) emphasizing the government’s position that the guidelines were simply a point of reference. Meanwhile, Taiwan People’s Party (TPP, 民眾黨) presidential candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) argued that that China and Taiwan have “the same language, ethnicity, history, religion and culture,” but “different political models and lifestyles.” He further stated that, “We do not have to abandon the whole culture just because we are in competition with China.” A (non-Taiwanese) writer for the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, almost certainly in line with the Chinese government’s position, opined that “There is no need to politicise something inherently good just because you are anti-communist.” 

Debates regarding the proper place of Chinese heritage-related historical and literary content in Taiwan’s schools, in relation to Taiwan’s unique culture, history, and identity, have long been intertwined with Taiwanese politics. The issues unveiled at the December press conference are but the latest example of political controversies over school curricula content that reach back more than 20 years, and connect directly with broader debates surrounding Taiwanese identity.


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Image: Members of the “History Education New Three-Self Movement Association” hold a press conference in Taipei to protest alleged “de-sinicization” (去中國化) in the government’s education guidelines (December 4, 2023). (Image source: China News Service)

Previous Textbook Controversies

Beyond the Taiwan-China debate, there have been other criticisms of the Taiwanese government’s 2019 decision to reduce the prevalence of classical Chinese texts in secondary education. For instance, a survey conducted of senior high school students found that many were frustrated that, although there was a decrease of classical texts within textbooks, the General Scholastic Ability Test (GSAT, 學科能力測驗) still featured a great number of these works. As a result, many found that they had to learn the texts on their own outside of class hours, which they noted could also exacerbate the rural-urban divide. Overall, the survey noted that it was important for the MOE to apply any changes holistically—if the curriculum changes, then the exam must change as well.

Still, fixating on this moment in time risks ignoring the greater context in which these reforms were enacted. As outlined in a previous article, cultural policy when the KMT first arrived in Taiwan aimed at legitimizing the party’s rule and de-Japanizing the Taiwanese population by uniting both newcomers and the existing Taiwanese population under a traditional Chinese identity. From the 1950s to the 1980s, history taught under the ruling KMT government “adopted a China-centric historical view, focusing on the glories of China’s past and touching only cursorily on the history of Taiwan.” It was not until 1997, under the Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) Administration, that Taiwanese history was taught as distinct from—although still supplemental to—Chinese history.

Taiwanization (and “de-sinicization”) of Taiwanese history continued under the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) Administration. In 2004, Taiwanese history was taught as an individual subject for the first time, with the founding of the Republic of China (ROC) taught as a component of Chinese—not Taiwanese—history. These changes, which were the result of a DPP-mandated committee of scholars addressing curriculum reform, depicted Taiwan’s history as a concentric circle, with “Taiwan as the core, China in the middle layer and the world on the outside.” Upon implementation, they experienced pushback in the form of protests and opposition from the KMT, who argued that such a move was tantamount to “turning one’s back on one’s ancestors.”

The subsequent administration of Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) represented a return to more Chinese-centric views on Taiwanese history, with the government suspending the academic guidelines introduced by the Chen Administration and releasing its own revised history textbooks and curriculum. In response, students from over 150 high schools demanded that the guidelines be withdrawn in 2015. Some criticisms raised were that the new guidelines depicted the KMT in a more positive light: such as portraying the 228 Incident (二二八大屠殺) as the result of a civil war between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, 中國共產黨), and failing to mention social movements fighting for democracy under KMT rule, implying by omission that the lifting of bans on media and alternative political parties was the “result of KMT beneficence.” In late July 2015, after months of protests and following the suicide of student protestor Lin Kuan-hua (林冠華), protestors occupied the Ministry of Education. However, the occupation—during which Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and Ko Wen-je visited the protestors—ended prematurely due to exhaustion and a typhoon. 

Recognizing these criticisms, the Tsai Administration rescinded Ma’s academic guidelines one day after Tsai’s inauguration. At the same press conference, Education Minister Pan Wen-chung (潘文忠) announced that a new review committee would be formed to develop new academic guidelines in an “open and transparent process.” The 40-member committee that was tasked with creating Taiwan’s 108 Curriculum also included four students who had participated in the 2015 protests. 

Despite recent assertions that the decrease of classical Chinese texts was a political choice made expressly to “de-sinicize” academic curricula, the recommendation initially came from the Association of Taiwanese Literature (ATL, 台灣文學學會) with the aim of improving Taiwanese students’ reading comprehension scores. In 2015, Taiwan fell to 23rd in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, which measures the effectiveness of education systems. The ATL attributed this decline to the disproportionate number of classical Chinese texts included in Taiwan’s national curriculum, as well as a heavy reliance on rote memorization. Since the implementation of the 108 Curriculum, however, Taiwan’s academic performance seems to have improved; according to the 2022 PISA findings, Taiwan outperformed the average, ranking fifth in reading. (As a side note, in 2018, before the new guidelines were introduced, Taiwan ranked 16th.) Seemingly, despite controversies and criticisms, the 108 Curriculum was successful in achieving its goal of improving Taiwanese student’s reading comprehension. 

Using Outrage for Politics

In addition to debate generated domestically, People’s Republic of China (PRC) state actors had a hand in amplifying the outrage. The Taiwan Information Environment Research Center (IORG, 台灣資訊環境研究中心) found that the CCP released 142 articles related to discussion of the 108 Curriculum, 84 of which mentioned the DPP. Negative criticisms in the articles included accusations that the reforms demonstrated that Taiwan’s government was “forgetting one’s ancestors” (a criticism similar to those levied in 2004 by the KMT) and “being rebellious.” A Global Times article that discussed the incident also misleadingly stated that Ou’s comments “gained wide support from student groups across the island.” The article mentioned the same NTU student survey cited by the Central News Agency, but only reported that 38 percent agreed with Ou, while  failing to mention the other responses.

By placing the debate within a moral framework, some have aimed to de-emphasize the political nature of the identity conflict within Taiwan. For instance, the SCMP writer asserted that teaching classical Chinese texts is “inherently good,” while the Global Times argued that Ou was raising this criticism as “someone in the education system, not driven by factional struggles but purely from the perspective of educational integrity and respect for history.” However, such framings ignore the reality that the process of constructing national identity is itself political, and that education connected to identity has the power “to change the world, to change the way people see themselves, to mobilize loyalties, kindle energies, and articulate demands.” [1] Identity informs voter’s political interests and is a powerful means of galvanizing voters. Additionally, the political nature of Taiwanese identity is felt even more keenly when China has a vested interest in how Taiwanese people delineate their own boundaries of nationhood.

Still, whether criticism of policies is apolitical or not, it does not change the fact that all citizens of Taiwan should be allowed to take part in deciding how Taiwanese identity and history is taught and understood. As a recent petition, released by the Taiwan Association of Cultural Policy Studies (TACPS, 臺灣文化政策研究學會) has pointed out, democratic governance is critical when navigating difficult policy decisions. Debate over what exactly is defined as “Chinese” or “Taiwanese” will continue to impact different areas of Taiwanese government policy. Accordingly, it will be important for the incoming Lai Administration—just as it has been for past administrations, and will be in future administrations—to find a balance between implementing reforms and honoring potentially contrasting identities through transparent and inclusive decision-making processes.

The main point: Accusations this past December that the Tsai Administration was “de-sinicizing” Taiwanese education were merely the latest in a long history of textbook controversies that wrestle with defining Taiwanese history and culture in relation to China. This debate shows that—despite Taiwanese people increasingly identifying as Taiwanese and not as Chinese—the question of how to position China in relation to Taiwanese identity is still an important issue for Taiwanese people and needs to be discussed through ongoing, open, and democratic processes.  

[1] Rogers Brubacker, “In the name of the nation: reflections on nationalism and patriotism,” Citizenship Studies 8, no. 2 (2004): 116.