Opening one of his four new Chinese literature textbooks, Gao Tian, 15, is feeling underwhelmed. The Grade One student from Beijing 156 Middle School is focused on his College Entrance Examination (CEE), and he quickly skims through it.
The first text is a prose piece in memory of an old friend by Lu Xun, arguably the most famous writer in modern Chinese literature. "It seems a little different from my older cousin's book," Tian said and put the books aside.
He is blissfully unaware, however, that the "little" difference he has noticed has triggered heated debate in mainland media. Critics were quick to fire off letters to the editor and post comments on the internet when changes in seven-year-old Chinese textbooks for Beijing Grade One senior middle schoolchildren were first reported.
Published by People's Education Press, the new versions reportedly included an extract from popular kung fu novel The Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain
, by Louis Cha, replacing Lu Xun's classic novelette The True Story of Ah Q
. Lu's tale rails against early 20th century Chinese for their toadying pursuit of self-interest and embodies a dark view of the Chinese psyche in the self-serving protagonist Ah Q.
This change was criticised for "replacing classics with superficial fast-food stories".
"Education will become an entertainment," a commentator said in a forum on the official Xinhuanet.com website. Many internet users feared the "incorrect guidance" in the new textbooks would lead students to lose their interest in traditional literature and culture.
"It's disastrous to delete the traditional texts. They are as relevant as ever after being read by so many students for such a long time," said Shandong teacher Li Xianzi.
Nevertheless, the publishers have studiously tried to correct what they saw as "media misrepresentation" of the new textbooks.
Gu Dexi, one of the editors and a teacher at Beijing No4 Middle School, said Cha's story was included only in the teachers' reference book and was not in the student textbook. It could help to explain, if necessary, the concept of Xia, a chivalrous person adept at martial arts, introduced in the ancient biography written by historian Sima Qian, Mr Gu said.
Some of Lu's works have been replaced by other pieces of his.
Kong Qingdong, from the Chinese language and literature department of Peking University, also an editor of the new textbooks, said the dropped texts, such as The True Story of Ah Q, depict an era when warlords and revolutionary fervour had the country gripped in chaos, which was difficult for teenagers to understand.
In contrast, Lu's other stories, such as the tribute to an old friend and the tale of an unfortunate widow, could still move and resonate with modern readers, Professor Kong said.
The new textbooks also contain more works by contemporary Chinese authors and foreign writers. About 10 ancient prose texts were replaced by shorter extracts. An essay on new language use in the hi-tech age, discussing symbols used in messaging services such as smileys, is also included.
The format has changed too with the ancient prose no longer grouped together in the same chapters.
"The texts should keep pace with the times," Professor Kong said.
Teachers have generally welcomed the changes. Liu Kui, Chinese education research director at Beijing No4 Middle School, one of the city's most prestigious, appreciated the rearrangement.
"In this way students can learn gradually, so it doesn't seem like a second language," Liu said.
Han Lu, a Chinese teacher at the school, said: "I don't know why people are so obsessed with a few texts."
Nevertheless, almost every change in the school textbooks in recent years has prompted controversy among the public.
Many were offended by depictions of sex in a domestic award-winning novel included in the reference book for middle schoolchildren by the People's Literature Publishing House in 2003.
Extracts from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Jin's Chronicles of the Heavenly Dragon, included in the 2004 middle school Chinese textbook, also triggered heated debate. As did the inclusion in a primary school textbook in 2005 of a story on Olympic hurdling gold medalist Liu Xiang - though most people applauded that change.
Jiang Bojing, from northern Hebei province, in an online forum said that people placed great importance on textbooks as the main way for children to learn Chinese.
"But people also hope students will learn morality, culture and humanity - almost everything - from Chinese textbooks, besides language itself," Jiang said.
Mao Zedong's Serve the People and stories of war heroes have been studied for decades and they are still included in textbooks to teach patriotism and devotion to work.
Besides, Jiang said, the CEE makes everything dull - teachers have to train students to pass the exam so students fail to appreciate the literature.
"The textbook is only a tool and it should not be the key to Chinese education reform," he said.
Teacher Han agreed: "How to teach is always of greater significance than what to teach." She said the traditional way, with teachers doing the talking and students taking notes, needed to change - teachers should instead help students learn to think and express themselves, enjoy the beauty of the Chinese language and apply it in their daily lives.
"Only when the teachers get a real understanding of the education of Chinese language can they flexibly use the texts."
Gu Dexi said native-language education was a worldwide difficulty that has always puzzled educators. "It's different from the knowledge-obtaining subjects, such as math, physics and chemistry," Gu said.
Gu said the public should give teachers more time and space to teach Chinese. "In my opinion, teachers should improve self-motivation among students," he said.
One student at Beijing No.4 Middle School said he liked the new textbooks because they provided a wider choice of texts, pointing to the greater number of foreign stories.
He said he had little time for extracurricular reading because of CEE study pressure, and he would not know what to read if he had the time.
"The new books are a good guide to extracurricular reading," he said.
But for Gao Tian, the debate was academic: "I have to get high marks in the CEE no matter what I read in the textbooks."
(Xinhua News Agency, November 30, 2007)