“Toxic” Literature Exam Questions Inspire Nationalist, Anti-Japanese Outburst

A middle school literature exam in Chengdu  has triggered the latest outburst of anti-Japanese nationalism. Students were asked to analyze an excerpt from “Fallen Azaleas,” an amateurish piece of fiction by the virtually unknown author and educator Li Jiaqian. The selection that went viral follows a Japanese colonel in World War II pursuing a band of Chinese Communist guerillas he holds responsible for the disappearance of his son. Nationalists accused Li—and Chengdu’s bureau of education—of insulting the legendary Eighth Route Army and glorifying Japan’s invasion of China. The author of the piece was subsequently sacked from his position as principal of a school in Henan, and the head of the education department in the Chengdu district that offered the exam has been suspended from duty. 

But to many, the outrage over the “toxic” exam material rang hollow. WeChat author “Very Serious Zhang Doe” (@特正经的张某某 @Tèzhèngjīng de Zhāng Mǒumǒu), reflecting on the “idiocy” of nationalism, intimated that the most truly toxic materials taught in school are the “profound and glorious” writings of Mao Zedong

Returning to my original point: why don’t I usually write about this stuff?

Because I think that discussing this kind of thing inevitably leads back to the screenshots below.

And is it even my generation’s place to discuss such profound and glorious material?

That’s why I don’t write [about “toxic” materials]. [Chinese]

Two screenshots. The screenshot at left shows a table of contents from a collection of Mao Zedong’s writings that has been scribbled over, presumably to confuse algorithmic image-based censorship. The screenshot at right, translated in full below, shows a series of WeChat messages about Mao’s writings.

Two screenshots. The screenshot at left shows a table of contents from a collection of Mao Zedong’s writings that has been scribbled over, presumably to confuse algorithmic image-based censorship. The screenshot at right, translated in italics below, shows a series of WeChat messages about Mao’s writings:
Because, when discussing “toxic” teaching material, we must start our discussion elsewhere.
[screenshot of Mao Zedong’s writing]
For example, we must first analyze the profundity and glory of this type of material.
Only then can we discuss how disgraceful those other illustrations and [textbook] covers are. 

Unlikely voices joined in the backlash to the “patriotic” anger over the piece. Infamous nationalist commentator Hu Xijin found the anger over the selection too contrived, writing: “The soldiers of the Eighth Route Army described in the short story were highly disciplined. They didn’t flee in panic, but continued to fight as they were forced to retreat into the hills. The fighters of the Eighth Route Army never surrendered—they all died in battle. But even in their final dire moments, they continued to protect that young Japanese man.” The comment section of his essay quickly filled with angry nationalists decrying Hu’s tolerance for “muddled” perspectives on history, some of whom implied Hu himself might be politically suspect.

The “Fallen Azaleas” controversy is but the latest craze over “toxic” or “poisonous” class materials that purportedly harm China’s national image. In 2022, the Ministry of Education (MOE) ordered a nationwide investigation into textbooks after social media users complained that the illustrations of children in popular elementary school math textbooks were so ugly as to be “pathological” and “racist.” The MOE later announced that 27 officials were punished for the textbooks’ publication. In 2021, state television network CGTN aired a propaganda documentary on the Party-state’s ostensible anti-terrorism campaign in Xinjiang that alleged over two million Uyghur children had used textbooks that “promote the views of religious extremism and incite ethnic hatred.” The director of Xinjiang’s education department, the director of the publishing house behind the textbooks, and the series editor-in-chief were all sentenced to life in prison. In January of this year, a new patriotic education law came into effect that mandates all members of society—from students to professionals—profess “patriotic feelings and behavior that bring glory to the country.” 

The outburst over the Chengdu exam materials is also part of a wave of seemingly growing online anti-Japanese sentiment. In January, a magnitude 7.6 earthquake that devastated Japan was met with Schadenfreude in some corners of the Chinese internet. Popular comments read: “Disaster strikes Japan, and everyone approves,” “Today is a good day,” “The first joyous event of 2024,” and “2024 is off to a great start!” Later that same month, a nationalist vlogger launched an attack on a third-tier city’s municipal subway administration for an advertisement purportedly featuring the “rising sun” flag of the former Japanese imperial army. (It was later revealed that the advertisement showed not a rising sun, but a traditional Chinese folding fan.) In February, Argentinian soccer superstar Lionel Messi was forced to apologize to Chinese soccer fans after he sat out a game in Hong Kong due to an injury, but later appeared in a match in Japan. In March, nationalists attacked bottled water company Nongfu Spring for being “too pro-Japanese.” Nobel Prize-winning novelist Mo Yan was sued for allegedly defaming Chinese heroes and martyrs, “beautifying” the Japanese imperial army, and denigrating the Chinese Eighth Route Army. The suit was dismissed but the nationalist rage it engendered has not ceased. In a piece on the dismissal of the suit against Mo Yan, the essayist Wei Zhou wrote: “But using political yardsticks to attack writers and their works, no matter what the reason, is certain to result in the cultural impoverishment of our nation and our people. We should not tolerate that happening.”


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