Normally students don’t get excited about maths books because they are dry, numbers-filled tomes that do little to inspire those who aren’t mathematically inclined.
Not so in China where a widely-used maths textbook has triggered a powerful row because of the “ugly” illustrations.
The debate – which has led to promises of a publishing industry overhaul – has divided the country’s parents. Some of them said the illustrations were evidence of “Western infiltration”, while others worried about further ideological tightening being imposed on publishers.
The one thing almost everyone agrees on is that the pictures were indeed “tragically ugly” and borderline “grotesque”, with children depicted with large foreheads, tiny drooping eyes and extremely high eyebrows. In addition, the images occasionally emphasised a child’s gender by outlining genitals through clothes. Several images were thought to be sexually charged, including one where a jumping girl exposed her underwear.
As anger over the illustrations grew online, some also pointed out that two of the drawings showed boys in clothes that resembled the US flag, while another image of a child’s toy plane is emblazoned with the number N33K – making it look like an old Japanese fighter plane.
“Why are our beautiful children being depicted in this disturbing way?” asked one irritated parent on Sina Weibo. “The pictures are racist,” declared another.
The furore comes against a backdrop of increased sensitivity over how Chinese are portrayed (see recent controversies about Western luxury brands choosing “ugly” Chinese models) and heightened political oversight over education.
In 2020 Beijing banned all foreign teaching materials declaring that textbooks “must reflect the will of the Party and the country”.
Last year schools were ordered to begin teaching the basics of Xi Jinping Thought in order to help children “establish Marxist beliefs”.
Not surprisingly the Global Times waded in as the controversy erupted, proclaiming that the “toxic” textbooks “sound the ideological security alarm”. The article went on to claim that other textbooks had been used to stir anti-Beijing sentiment in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
“Problematic textbooks are not a matter of aesthetics, but a threat to the country’s ideological security and the future of the nation,” the Global Times quoted a Tianjin University professor of law as saying.
Last week authorities in China announced they would pay up to Rmb12,000 ($1,794) for tip-offs that expose foreign espionage and national security breaches even as the country has become increasingly isolated from the rest of the world due to its strict zero-Covid travel policy.
What is perhaps strange about the maths textbook scandal is that the book has been in national use since 2013. Furthermore, it is published by People’s Education Press – a state-owned company founded in 1950 and the country’s biggest textbook publisher.
According to information provided in the textbooks, the controversial covers and illustrations were designed by the ‘Wu Yong Working Studio’. However, the government’s industrial and commercial registration records show that such a ‘studio’ has never been registered. Local media outlets soon found out that the illustrator was in fact called Wu Yong, a graduate from the Academy of Arts and Design at Tsinghua University.
People’s Education Press initially apologised over the furore and announced that it was recalling the books.
But that was not enough to dilute public anger and two weeks ago the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced a sweeping national review of all primary, secondary and university textbooks.
“The problems identified will be rectified immediately, and those responsible for violations of discipline and regulations will be severely held accountable,” the MOE said before promising that materials published in the new academic year will “promote outstanding Chinese culture and conform to the aesthetic tastes of the public.”
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