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Taiwan Government Seeks Revision to Textbooks to De-emphasize Links with China

Textbooks in Taiwan use a wide array of words to describe the island's politically sensitive relationship to mainland China. Jacques van Wersch in Taipei describes recently issued recommendations for changes in wording that would significantly de-emphasize that relationship.

The government of China says Taiwan is an inseparable part of China. While Taiwan's ruling party insists Taiwan is a sovereign nation, separate from China, current Taiwanese school textbooks seem to tell a different story.

For example the Mandarin word "woguo" - "our nation" - is used in many textbooks to describe a geographic area that includes China. This would imply, despite the Taiwan leadership's assertions, that China and Taiwan are one.

Earlier this year, Taiwan's Ministry of Education decided to do something about the apparent discrepancy. The ministry asked a private historical association to pore through existing high school textbooks to find "imprecise" terminology and offer alternatives.

Pan Wen-chung, director of the ministry's Department of Elementary Education, says language used by China's Nationalist Government to assimilate Taiwan when the Nationalists fled to the island in 1949 is now outdated.

"Textbooks should be more correct and precise, and they should better reflect the facts in order to provide a proper foundation for further study," said Pan.

Earlier this year, the ministry approved new high school history textbooks that employ the kind of "correctness" the ruling party favors. Among other things, three volumes originally entitled "National History" were rearranged into two, with one becoming "Chinese History" and the other, "Taiwan History."

In June, the ministry issued specific recommendations for new wording for almost all future textbooks. The new wording was chosen to underline Taiwan's separateness from the mainland. According to the recommendations, the names of Chinese dynasties should be referred to, for example, as "China's Ming Dynasty. Textbooks should not refer to Taiwan as a "province" or "region."

The Education Ministry's Pan Wen-chung answers to the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which favors independence from China. But Pan says there is no political agenda to the textbook modifications.

But the Taipei City Government, which is run by the opposition Chinese Nationalist Party, says the ministry is introducing a new political bias with its suggested wording. Shih Po-hui, section chief for middle school education at the Taipei City Department of Education, says the emphasis should be on education.

"If educational policy or educational issues are framed in reference to politics, I think it violates the mission of educational workers," said Shih.

Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian has attempted for years to advance the DPP's independence agenda. Recently, he has been promoting a referendum on the island entering the United Nations as a sovereign nation, using the name "Taiwan."

China considers Taiwan a rogue province, and dislikes Mr. Chen intensely. Beijing's stated goal is eventual reunification of Taiwan and the mainland, but it says it will use its military to force immediate reunification if the island declares all-out independence.

New textbooks adopting the recommendations could be published as early as this autumn, but since textbooks here are generally revised on a three-year cycle, it could take that long before the revised books show up in schools.

Shih Po-hui says he and his colleagues will review textbooks that implement the government's recommended changes, and might ban the new books from Taipei's schools.