Uproar in China over textbook images ‘not suitable for children’

HONG KONG — China’s education ministry has ordered a nationwide review of all elementary school, high school and university textbooks after illustrations in widely used mathematics textbooks for elementary school students were criticized online as ugly, sexually suggestive and anti-China. 

The textbooks, published by the state-run People’s Education Press, have been in use for about a decade, according to Chinese news reports. But there has been an outcry on Chinese social media since last week, when illustrations from the books were posted on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.

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Some Chinese internet users criticized what they said were racist depictions of people with small, wide-set eyes, while others objected to scenes that appear to show girls being groped or boys with bulging pants. An inaccurate rendering of the Chinese flag and a drawing of a boy wearing the U.S. flag colors of red, white and blue also drew accusations that the publisher was sending a pro-Western, anti-China message.

“This is not a problem of art, this is a problem of ideology. Do they really not know the seriousness of the problem of ideology infiltrating education?” one Weibo user commented.

The publisher has apologized and said it will revise the illustrations before the start of the next academic year in the fall. But that failed to stem the public uproar, and the Ministry of Education promised a wider review.

Image: Math textbook
The state-run People’s Education Press, which published the textbooks, has apologized and said it will revise the illustrations.Sheldon Cooper / SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

“The problems found will be rectified immediately,” it said in a statement on Monday. “Those who violated the disciplines and regulations will be held accountable, and will be dealt with seriously in accordance with laws and regulations.”

Cristina Du, the mother of a fourth grader in Henan Province, said she had never looked closely at the illustrations until they were posted on social media.

“My daughter said she has always thought the illustrations are ugly since her first year in elementary school,” Du said. “She also told me there are illustrations that are not suitable for children.”

Under Chinese leader Xi Jinping, there has been greater scrutiny of textbooks and similar materials as the government moves to center education around the ruling Communist Party and its ideology. Foreign textbooks have been banned in primary and middle schools.

Anger over the illustrations in the math textbooks has quickly spread to other Chinese materials designed for children and teenagers, leading other books to be pulled from the shelves. 

Image: Math textbook
Under Chinese leader Xi Jinping, there has been greater scrutiny of textbooks.Sheldon Cooper / SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Others pushed back against the online furor. Wuheqilin, a prominent nationalist artist, argued that the low pay offered to illustrators resulted in poor-quality work.

One Weibo user criticized the textbook illustrations as ugly but said she was more concerned about greater censorship.

“If you look hard with a magnifying glass, you will find something wrong with everything,” she said.