‘Chinese History for Teachers’ – A new online resource

A Timeline of Modern Chinese History 2

We are pleased to share with you a new online resource that has been created by Dr. Toby Lincoln and Dr. Lauren Walden from the University of Leicester, and designed in partnership with the UCL IOE Confucius Institute for Schools. To access, click here.

In short, the website addresses the history component found in paper four of the Pre-U Mandarin Chinese syllabus, covering the period from 1937 – 1956. It can also be used for teaching Chinese history more generally, for students at any age from school through to degree level.

It is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) based in the United Kingdom and forms part of an Early Career Leadership Fellow Grant entitled ‘Postwar Urban Reconstruction in China 1937-1958’ awarded to Dr. Toby Lincoln, Associate Professor of Chinese Urban History at the University of Leicester. Dr. Lauren Walden, the research assistant for this project, collected the historical materials and was responsible for site design.

Find out more about the website, from the driving force behind it to how it should be used, in our interview below.

What made you want to create the website?

TL: I had known Katharine Carruthers (IOE Confucius Institute Director) since my time as secretary of the British Association for Chinese studies, and had long since discussed with her the possibility of creating a website that could help teachers of Mandarin Chinese. Katharine was very helpful during the research council grant writing process, where applicants have to show the potential for the project to have an impact on society, and I was fortunate to secure the funding that made the creation of this website possible.

From the start, the aim was to create a resource that would be of use to teachers in secondary schools in the UK to assist with the teaching of modern Chinese history. The study of China has grown steadily in popularity over the past decade at school and university, and so it’s great to be able to help with this in a small way. China is part of all of our lives, and increasing understanding of the country in the UK is really important, since it helps to broaden the horizons of our students.

LW: I was attracted to the role of website creation as I believe partnerships with those working outside academia are vital in making our work relevant to society, and this was at the core of Toby’s AHRC project. Beyond this, I think that expanding the provision of educational Chinese materials that can be used in a school setting is key; I never had the chance to study Chinese language or history at my secondary school, something the IOE Confucius Institute is successfully redressing, and given China’s burgeoning presence in global affairs, I think it is very important that the next generation are given this opportunity. I would envisage that gaining an overview of Chinese language and culture at secondary school will also make it exponentially more likely for students to have the confidence to continue the subject at degree level.

Is there something in particular that you want students or teachers to gain from using the website?

TL: The website is designed to assist teachers with the Pre-U syllabus, and so follows this quite closely in terms of the topics that we have chosen. However, it is based around historical sources, such as photographs and cartoons. It’s not possible to be a good historian without a deep understanding of what different sources can tell us about the past. Having them presented on a website, with all the data to explain where they came from, is an excellent opportunity for students to think about what the sources tell us. We live in a world saturated in information, and making sense of what it means and how we should interpret it is a complicated business. That’s the main task of the historian when we think about what our sources tell us about the past, and so this website really helps develop these skills of information analysis.

LW: Another goal was to aid teachers who have a more language-orientated specialism gain further skills in communicating historical subject matter, as required by the Pre-U Chinese syllabus. The website provides teachers with a wealth of primary source materials (over 100), going beyond existing textbooks and distilling the content of important academic texts that time-strapped teachers would simply not have the chance to consult themselves.

In terms of the student experience, the website includes model essays that respond to past exam questions, demonstrating how to create a convincing argument in a short timeframe (1 hour 15 minutes), with a formative plan included. Further to this, the website’s exhibits are accompanied by essays of around 2000 words which make for digestible revision material. Students may not be studying History as a subject alongside Mandarin Chinese, and teachers may not have a historical background, therefore we hope that both students and teachers gain confidence in responding to this component of the Pre-U syllabus.

How is it intended to be used? Is there a specific order in which students should browse?

TL: The site can be used as teachers and students see fit. It can be used to closely follow the textbooks, and we hope that the introduction of some of the main historical debates will help add a little more depth for those students who want it. In addition, it could be used as a way of thinking about source analysis, and it’s here perhaps more than anywhere else that students taking A-Level History might find it most useful.

LW: This depends on the expectations of the user. Whilst the website is primarily intended for those working with the Pre-U syllabus, we hope it is accessible for all interested parties. The exhibits section is the most comprehensive element of the website where both visual and written primary sources are combined with an analytical essay on a particular historical event or period, for example ‘The Sino-Japanese War’ and ‘Collectivisation of Agriculture’ etc.

For students, I would recommend that they first consult the exhibit ‘A Timeline of Modern Chinese History’, which can be accessed via the website’s homepage. This timeline provides an overview of the most pivotal events from 1937 to 1956. Next, I would recommend students focus on a particular period, reading through the corresponding exhibit section. They can then take the accompanying quiz to fact-check their knowledge.

Following on, students are able to develop analytical skills by debating the different primary source materials which are gathered in the collections section. The primary sources are deliberately intended to represent conflicting perspectives with varying levels of reliability, for example: a Chinese propaganda poster depicting an idealised version of life in a commune, versus a photograph taken by a foreign journalist depicting refugees after the Japanese bombing of Shanghai.

When exam season beckons, students can then prepare themselves by consulting model essays, and for those who want to further enrich their knowledge base, they can explore our links page which provides access to several sources and databases used in Chinese studies scholarship.

Which bit of Chinese history in the period 1937 – 1956 do you, personally, find the most interesting?

TL: The main purpose of my AHRC fellowship is to study the reconstruction of Chinese cities after World War II, so I’ve spent much of the last two years collecting and reading sources about this issue. I’ve been fascinated with Chinese cities ever since first going to the country over twenty years ago. The late 1940s was the period when out of the devastation of war, many of the foundations for their development were laid. Tracing the complex threads of this history is really challenging, but also very satisfying.

LW: That’s a really good question. My background is in Art History, so I am particularly fascinated by early CCP (Communist Party of China) propaganda posters in the 1950s which drew from the Soviet Style of ‘Socialist Realism.’ Scholarship often describes ‘Socialist Realism’ as simply an idealised form of reality used for the indoctrination of the masses. Broadly speaking, this premise seems to hold true during the First Five Year Plan (1953-1958) but I would go as far as to say that several propaganda posters completely broke away from reality and instead, employed surreal dream-like imagery and mythical symbolism from Chinese traditional folklore. This becomes particularly true during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), something the Pre-U syllabus briefly addresses to contextualise the success vs. failure of the First Five Year Plan.  At this juncture, dragons, phoenixes, peanut-canoes and tractors riding the crest of a wave were all employed to mask the onset of the brutal reality of famine and create the illusion of an abundant harvest. So, I believe this change in artistic trajectory during the 1950’s from the real to the surreal corresponds with Mao’s unwillingness to admit the abject failure of collectivisation in rural and urban areas.

We are currently in lockdown with teaching and learning taking place remotely online. How can the website act a useful resource during this time?

TL: There is no doubt that online resources are proving really useful during this difficult period. Students and teachers can easily engage with this site remotely in a variety of ways. The sources also bring the history to life a little, and make it more exciting to study. So, ultimately, I hope that this site will bring some joy to those who use it, both now and in the future.

LW: The creation of this website is indeed very timely! For teachers, the website exhibits can be used as 18 discrete lesson plans to continue teaching the Pre-U syllabus remotely in spite of current circumstances. Providing that both students and teachers all have internet access, primary sources can be consulted by all participants during the class and discussions can ensue. Homework can readily be set for students to explore the several links to further resources we have provided.  For students whose exams have been cancelled, I hope the website can serve as a form of enrichment, particularly for those going on to study Chinese at University.

If you use the website to teach the Pre-U Chinese syllabus, Dr Toby Lincoln and Dr Lauren Walden would be grateful if you could fill in a short online questionnaire regarding your experience of using the resource. 

Click here to read more about Dr Toby Lincoln, and here to read more about Dr Lauren Walden.