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Sometimes a Textbook Is Just a Textbook

A story out of China has been making the rounds of late, particularly within the Christian media outlets. The story, as it is being reported (here and here), is that a law and ethics textbook used in a vocational school somewhere in China includes a passage from the Bible. But at the end the passage is altered to present a very different message from the original version, a message that is more in line with Party ideology.

Over the course of the past couple of weeks I have had a number of people write and ask me if I thought that this might be an indication of what is to come with the much-heralded new translation that the Chinese government is supposedly working on. Might it be a sneak preview?

I have my doubts.

First of all, textbooks in China are produced by national and local education commissions. These government entities have no relationship with the China Christian Council or Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the entities that are supposedly working on the new translation. In my opinion, the chances that the altered Bible story that appears in this textbook is a “sneak preview” of the new translation are next to zero. They are two completely different things, or as we say in Chinese “liang ma shi!” (两码事)

Secondly, these types of textbooks have been floating around in China for decades; they are nothing new. It is common for textbooks to take stories from the west (be they from sacred texts or famous speeches) and give them a twist. When I was studying Chinese in Changchun in the 1990s there was a popular book available in the local foreign language bookstore called One Hundred Bible Stories. It was bilingual textbook to help English learners with their reading comprehension. For me and my classmates, of course, it was the other way around. We used it to improve our Chinese reading comprehension. Many of the stories (especially those taken from the Bible) took odd twists and turns from the original versions that would leave us scratching our heads, saying “Wait? What?”

Thirdly, as Brent Fulton wrote in his recent post “Is China Re-writing the Bible?,” we really don’t know much about this supposed plan. In fact, the plan itself is quite vague:

The plan instructs TSPM leaders to “conscientiously cultivate researchers of the Bible to set about laying a solid foundation for reinterpreting the Bible or writing scriptural annotations.”

According to this provision, the TSPM ought to be in a position to reinterpret or annotate scripture in light of China’s own cultural realities. To do so, however, requires “laying a solid foundation,” which itself requires having researchers who are qualified to reinterpret or annotate scripture. The main task outlined here is one of training, not translation. Rather than a definitive mandate to produce a new Chinese Bible, the statement itself could be seen more as a tacit admission that the TSPM currently lacks sufficient resources to undertake such a project. 

Sometimes it seems that, here in the West, we are so wound up about the supposed new translation that it becomes the lens through which we see what otherwise are relatively minor events in China.

We need to be on our guard that we don’t let one dominant narrative be the lens through which we view and interpret all events. Sometimes a story about a textbook might just be a story about a textbook.

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Image credit: Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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