History Education and the Construction of Identity

Song Jun
Assistant Professor (Theological Studies)
Director of Chinese Culture Research Center


What is the purpose of studying history? This question is not new to me as a history lecturer. Judging from the students’ responses in class, one could almost conclude that most people do perceive history as a useless subject. For this reason, I am determined to seize every opportunity to change people’s mindset about history before the end of the course.


One way to achieve this goal is to let others see that I truly love this subject. I would embrace history with passion and charm my audience with eloquence. Or try my best to get them to feel the fun of it, at least once.

Another way is to start with current issues, looking back for lessons that we can learn from the past, looking forward for trends in future development. This is essentially practicing what the Italian historian Benedetto Croce (1866- 1952) said: – “All history is contemporary history.” It will help people to see that history is very much alive and has a direct influence on today and tomorrow. Your attitude toward history is a true reflection of your attitude toward the present.

Experience tells me that the above methods are actually effective, as essays written by most students indicate a very clear awareness of issues they are facing. In fact, the more intense and severe the social changes and turbulence become, the more they drive people to look back to history and reality intently and thoroughly.

In addition, history also produces tremendous value through its process of reappearing, reconstructing and recollecting to establish identity. I personally experienced how documented history had such a huge impact on the identity of people in 2007, the 10th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China, while I was still new to Hong Kong. From my conversations with a few Hong Kong friends, I was astounded by how they identified more with Britain than China. So I began my study from history education approach, trying to understand the identity differences between the two sides.

“All history is contemporary history”

During the period of British governance, “Hong Kong’s local history education was characterized by an education model based on moderate colonialism: After the riot broke out in 1967, the Hong Kong-British government euphemistically suppressed the sprouting of the awareness of Chinese nationalism, hindering the normal development of Chinese history education.”1 This tactic of “ingeniously neglect”2 has led to a lack of knowledge on national history among most Hong Kong people.

Before the handover, Hong Kong secondary schools used the curriculum adopted in 1982 for Chinese History. Its education purpose included three dimensions, namely knowledge, ability and attitude. Attitude here referred to “developing an objective attitude toward things” and “cultivating good character”. After the handover, a new curriculum was adopted in 1997. In addition to the previous content, it also included “a sense of ethnic and national belonging, and responsibility toward the society.”3 The agenda of ethnic and national belonging could not be more obvious here. Comparing with the “1997 curriculum”, one could see that the syllabuses in the “1982 curriculum” for Secondary 1 (through Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties) and Secondary 2 (through the Ming Dynasty) do not have many changes. However, the content of the textbooks for Secondary 3 (Qing Dynasty and modern contemporary history) has been significantly expanded. Its structure is very much the same as the history textbooks used by junior high schools in Mainland China.4

Mainland China has always emphasized history education, outlining a very clear narrative framework for the period of modern history: For more than a hundred years since the Opium War in 1840, China went through a period of domination and humiliations by foreign nations → people with lofty ideals rose against foreign powers and defended China → the rise of Communism established a new China, leading Yeung Kwan the Chinese people to finally stand up. The government makes it clear that the purpose of patriotic education is to “cultivate the students’ passion toward the Chinese Communist Party” at the stage of elementary school; and at junior high, to “recognize that it was only through the founding of Marxism-Leninism and the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party that the Chinese revolution was deemed truly successful. This is also to realize from the course of historical development that there would not be a new China without the Communist Party.” It is imperative to teach during class that “China’s social development reveals the historical inevitability that Chinese people can only stand up when they take on the road of socialism under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. And by then we can turn into a great, modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic and culturally advanced.”5

For this reason, I firmly believe that the country somehow used history education as a long-term “naturalization” strategy in response to those Hong Kong people who still did not accept the return to the motherland at that time. The change of re-categorizing Chinese History from Liberal Studies to an independent subject last year reveals the obvious intent of the authorities. They hope to start with history education, subtly and imperceptibly renationalizing Hong Kong people. How can the students not care about giving the standard answers when they know the score of Chinese History is now included in the assessment of the public examination, which is critical to their own future? Under the current commanding examination system, the history essentially tailored, weaved and contextualized by the will of the state will be engraved deeply on the students’ hearts, whether they like it or not - so deep that they would blurt it out when necessary, despite the passage of time and the vicissitudes of life. It is undeniable that the identity of men is constantly being constructed.

“Remember your name or you won’t be able to go home!”

In the famous work Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki, White Dragon makes an intriguing remark to the young girl Chihiro: “Remember your name or you won’t be able to go home!” As Christians, we are sojourners on the earth and our Christian identity is constructed in the history of salvation.

Exodus is the narrative that shapes the identity of the Israelites as God’s people. Through Moses, God commanded them to observe the decrees, regulations and festivals. He urged the elders to be prepared when asked by their children, and tell them about God’s commands and how they had witnessed the work of God – “Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.” (Deuteronomy 4:9)

And the narrative of the crucifixion is the core narrative of the people in the New Testament. Peter reminded the believers around the world for seven times that they already had this knowledge about salvation (“knowledge” in 2 Peter 1:2, 3, 5, 6, 8; 2:20; 3:18). He advised them to “make every effort” (1:5, 10; 3:14), meaning trying their best to remember it in their hearts. His last wish was to “make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.” (2 Peter 1:15)

Apparently, history is very important in the eyes of God. He invites men to enter into divine history, to educate and shape a new creation through divine historical narrative.

All the countries and tribes are writing and depicting their own histories, attempting to “imagine” the communities that distinguish “us” from “them”.6 We need to make a choice in this, for it is not only relevant to the construction of identity, but more importantly, to the ultimate belonging and “homecoming”.



  1. Kwok Hung Yip, ‘Can the reform in curriculum wipe away the influence of colonial education? – On the “subjugation” crisis of Chinese history under curriculum integration’ [in Chinese], in Hong Kong Economic Journal, January 8, 2000.
  2. Hong Kuen Ho, ’Can Chinese history study retain its place of significance?‘ [in Chinese], in Sing Tao Daily, April 14, 2000.
  3. Hing Lok Leung, The reason for subjugation – Study of the Chinese history curriculum of Hong Kong secondary schools (1990-2005) [in Chinese] (Hong Kong: Teaching and research lab, 2009), 109.
  4. Hing Lok Leung, ibid,136. See also People’s Education Press (ed.), Mainland junior high history textbook, History Class: Junior High Textbook: Chinese History (second volume) [in Chinese] (Beijing: People’s Education, 1987); Yim Kwong Yu, Yat Ming Leung, Wai Ming Chan: Chinese History second volume [in Chinese] (Hong Kong: Manhattan Press, 1997); Shiu Ping Yip, Yim Kwong Yu, Oi Fong Yu: Interactive Chinese History [in Chinese] (Hong Kong: Manhattan Press, 2000); Chung Sau Tam, Chi Wah Chan, Ka Leung Wong, Kwok Yun Law: Chinese History revised edition [in Chinese] (Hong Kong: Modern Education Research Society, 2004).
  5. State Education Commission of the People’s Republic of China, Outline of ideological and political Education for History for Primary and Middle Schools (Trial) [in Chinese] (Beijing: People’s Education, 1991), 2, 7, 27.
  6. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Wu Rui-Ren (tran.), second edition (Taipei: China Times, 2010).


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