Teaching about Mao’s China in the secondary school classroom - SOAS China Institute

//Teaching about Mao’s China in the secondary school classroom

Teaching about Mao’s China in the secondary school classroom – one History teacher’s reflection

'The Sunshine of Mao Zedong Thought Illuminates the Path of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution' (1967) – Image credit: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto

By Kristian Shanks | 06 November 2020

The history teaching community in the UK has been one of the most forward thinking in recent years at trying to ensure that a greater range of voices and perspectives are being brought into the curriculum.  This has meant that, slowly but surely, there has been a shift away from an entirely ‘male, pale and stale’ curriculum that tended to dominate in the 1980s, to one that has greater geographic and demographic reach.


As the Head of History in a secondary school in a small town in rural North Yorkshire, I’ve been keen to ensure that our students leave us with a good knowledge and understanding of a diverse range of historical topics.  That led me to introduce the study of Mao’s China, 1949-1976 (via the Edexcel exam board) as one of our A-level topics, replacing the traditional studies of 20th Century Germany and Fascist Italy that had dominated before (in the former case this is also a topic we cover at GCSE!).  This was a topic I’d taught for one year in 2008 as an NQT which I then had to abandon due to changing school.  I really enjoyed learning and teaching this content and have blogged here about why now, more than ever, this is a topic that should have greater pride of place in school History curricula across the country.  However, while in the process of getting to grips again with the mainstream scholarship around this topic, I’ve encountered some barriers that might be off-putting to teachers looking to inject new life into their curricular offerings.


First of all, the specification content and main textbook resources could do more to bring out some of the lively debates this period engenders.  For the period between 1949 and 1957, students are meant to consider the ‘establishment of Communist control’ up to and including the Hundred Flowers Campaign.  Fair enough – but it would be nice to have perhaps the key debate about this period, elucidated by the likes of Frank Dikotter in The Tragedy of Liberation, revolving around whether this was a ‘honeymoon period’ for the regime or a dark period of immediate terror, be fleshed out a bit further, rather than just trotting through the different purges and anti-campaigns as at present.  That’s the sort of ‘meaty’ debate that A-level students really want to get into, especially as it challenges their pre-conceptions of the period and of the traditional western view of ‘Mao the monster’. 


Secondly, the narrative structure of the course could be a bit stronger.  The way the course is structured is rather thematic.  The first theme focuses on the establishment of control, while the second theme looks at agricultural and industrial change 1949-1965.  In the second theme, the teaching sequence suggests looking at the Great Famine before the Great Leap Forward, which seems counter-intuitive given the story of that event.  The third theme, looking at the Cultural Revolution and its’ aftermath, continues the story but can become quite confusing if you don’t know what you’re doing with the topic.  I’ve personally found Dikotter’s approach of dividing the period into Red, Black and Grey phases quite helpful as a way through this.  The fourth theme then looks at the social changes of the whole period, covering the topics of women, religion, culture, health and education.  These aspects might be better served by being weaved into the overall narrative of the course. 


Thirdly, teachers are inhibited by a lack of older, high-quality materials that do not align with a specific exam board specifications.  Teachers of 20th Century Russia and Germany, by contrast, have been well served with years of excellent textbook resources produced by organisations like the Schools History Project that give the panicking teacher, with a double lesson the next morning, some lesson planning inspiration.  The existing resources, while helpful, leave students unprepared for questions that can come up.  For example, one year students were asked about how far the economic reforms of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping after the Great Leap improved the Chinese economy.  A fair question but hard to answer for students using the core resources as only the strengths of these reforms are presented, but not the weaknesses.  This resourcing problem more generally is one of the biggest barriers to the diversification of the History curriculum that many would like to see. 


Finally, I think it is difficult for many teachers and students to get a sense of place – what the history teacher Michael Hill has referred to as ‘world-building’ (subscription required) – from existing resources.  Unless you have a deep knowledge of the subject, perhaps from having studied it at degree-level yourself, it is hard for the average British history teacher or student to comprehend the regional, religious and ethnic diversity of China in the mid-twentieth century.  We need more support in understanding the differences between, for example, Shanghai and Beijing.  We need more support in getting to grips with the basic provincial differences between different parts of China – for example what it’s like in poorer provinces like Guizhou or Gansu.  We do get to grips with issues around the attempts to integrate places like Xinjiang and Tibet, which are fantastic for encouraging students to build up knowledge of contemporary China, but more could be done here.  Contrast this with the excellent knowledge many British history teachers would have of the regional differences within Germany, or Russia, during similar time periods.  The international aspects of Maoism, flagged up in Julia Lovell’s work, is also completely neglected and would bring real texture to future specification offerings of this topic.


Developing the subject knowledge of History teachers is a key way in which a broader and more global curriculum can be implemented.  The demand is there for it on our side of things!  We have seen with other topics, such as the study of medieval African Kingdoms, that academics and high school teachers have worked together to great effect in raising the profile of neglected histories.  I certainly hope to be able to collaborate in the future with colleagues in the academic history community to bring the history of modern China, knowledge of which is crucial in explaining the twenty-first century world, to life more effectively with my own students. 

Kristian Shanks is the Curriculum Leader for History at Sherburn High School, North Yorkshire. He blogs at @kristian.shanks and is on Twitter @HistoryKss.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.