May 23

Mathematics with ideological flair

Written by Nimrod on Sunday, May 23rd, 2010 at 1:38 am
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A set of book scans from the Cultural Revolution has been popular with bloggers around the internet the last few months. Here is an interesting one, a secondary school mathematics textbook that begins on this page:

Chairman Mao teaches us: “Never forget class struggle.” Now we shall settle the account on how damned landlord Skinner Qian cruelly exploited peasant Uncle Zhang by his criminal “interest upon interest” scheme (See Figure 1.1).

Peasant Uncle Zhang originally borrowed only 3 Yuan from the damned landlord. After 10 months, “interest upon interest” made it 3*(1+30%)10 Yuan. Now, let’s find out how big this number is.

Then it becomes a normal text, giving a simple exercise in using the log table. Turns out Uncle Zhang owed 41.31 Yuan, but there’s more…

After 10 months, Uncle Zhang was exploited out of 41.31-3=38.31 Yuan worth of interest. In the evil Old China, the landlord class not only cruelly exploited farmhands by renting out land, but also sucked dry the blood and sweat of peasants by usury, and built a criminal paradise for the exploiting class on the skeletons of the working people. Peasants like Uncle Zhang numbered more than a billion! If it weren’t for Chairman Mao leading us to overthrow the Three Mountains breaking the backs of the Chinese people and to build a dictatorship of the proletariat, how could we peasants have today’s great fortune? But the Renegade, Traitor, and Scab Liu Shaoqi wantonly promoted the “ceasing of class struggle theory”, and lied about how “more exploitation means more contribution”. He sang praises for the exploiting class, wishfully dreamed of overthrowing the dictatorship of the proletariat and restoring capitalism in China, to make billions of people go back to the painful past….

You can see more of this stuff here.

There are lots of math and science textbooks like this from that time, and some are more rhetorically engaged than others. Usually there is some pro forma Mao quote at the beginning of chapters, and some aren’t bad, like the popular 好好学习、天天向上 (“study well, make advancements everyday” or more amusingly “good good study, day day up”). Many people laugh and think these textbooks are totally hysterical. This shows China has come a long way. Then, upon further inspection, it has a very ironic ring to it. As the younger generation enters a competitive labor market with growing pressure to succeed in a “cruel capitalist world”, there is a resurgence in neo-leftist ideology and a romanticization of the pre-Deng era, where everybody was equal (and poor). Only now the old Three Mountains of the Mao era (imperialism, feudalism, bureaucrat capitalism) are overshadowed by the modern Three Mountains of the lower- and middle-class (housing, health care, education). Interestingly, the same concerns make the same “Maoistic” politics play out even in other places (see this).

In this environment, China’s new rich and connected are heavily criticized for their behavior. With a few notable exceptions, they are variously said to be above the law, wantonly lavish, and unphilanthropic. There was a report of them depositing their wealth and children abroad, because they feared populism and the rich-poor gap. It is in times of prosperity and greed that today’s leaders and well-to-do should remember their social responsibility embedded in Deng’s idea: it was to let some people get rich first, not to let only some get rich.

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12 Responses to “Mathematics with ideological flair”

  1. S. K. Cheung Says:

    Texts like these would certainly have made learning about compound interest in grade school far more interesting.

    It is interesting that the dream at one time was for everyone to be equal (and as you say, in pre1980’s China, that meant equally poor); whereas today, the dream might be for everyone to be equally rich. It seems that both would require a classless society, and I’m not sure that’s possible, for myriad reasons. Society’s work is done by society’s people, but not everyone is capable of performing every single task…nor is everyone willing to do so, even if they were able. Some people might be more qualified to perform certain tasks than others, be it on the basis of education, talent, training, work ethic, or fortuitous circumstance. On the other end of the spectrum, as they say, there are “dirty jobs”, but someone’s gotta do them. So the disparity comes from the value society places on different types of work…and different societies seem to value different types of work to differing degrees.

    There’s also the issue of a social safety net, so as to hopefully ensure that people don’t fall below a certain threshold of survivability, however defined. I think in any society, some people will get rich first, and some will remain richer than others. But an honest day’s work should be remunerated by an honest day’s pay. And it seems true to me that a society can be judged by how it treats its least fortunate members. I think these things remain a work in progress today the world over.

  2. fobtacular Says:

    You guys need to blog about 袁腾飞. This guy literally took on the CCP’s propaganda agency with his history class. Here is a video of his class

  3. Wukailong Says:

    Fascinating. I bet this is still the way North Korean textbooks look.

    When I was in high school, before I studied Chinese, I mentioned to some fellow students that I was interested in the language and culture. Two days later, one of them returned with several books her mom had used when trying to learn calligraphy. Most of them were textbooks for studying Chinese written during the Cultural Revolution! One chapter was specifically about the “Criticize Confucius, Criticize Lin Biao” campaign and claimed that Lin Biao had tried to restore capitalism and Confucian thought. I don’t remember the whole litany, but Lin Biao was described something like “the treacherous double-dealer, adventurer, class enemy, traitor Lin Biao.” He was an “out-and-out disciple of Confucius” who had tried to restore capitalism by invoking the famous quote “名不正言不顺” in a conversation with Mao. Confucius, on his part, had tried to restore slavery against the feudal revolutionaries at the time.

  4. Raj Says:

    Wukailong, mathematics – being the invention of foreign devils – is banned in North Korea. Instead they teach “Great Leader Kim’s Jong-matics”, which are vastly superior and definitely 100% Korean. He was taught it on Baekdu mountain by the Great Spirit at birth.

  5. Charles Liu Says:

    Reminds me of the word problem in a math exam that use a [black] person named “Condoleezza” dropping a watermelon from the top of a building – 2006 in Seattle.

  6. Wukailong Says:

    Dropping a watermelon sounds like a lot of fun. I planned a similar prank back in my highschool years but nothing came out of it.

  7. real name Says:

    ad 2.
    times are changing?
    “pugnacious, sometimes acrid comments about Chinese history, especially the late leader Mao Zedong”

  8. real name Says:

    not-ideological chinese math lessons could be found in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Not_One_Less from 1999
    (director is known from his later meganonsenses)

  9. Charles Liu Says:

    Nim, this is yesterday’s news. If you go to the original CN page, you’ll see the math book cover says it was from Shangxi province. Anyone knows a little bit of history knows northeast China was the epicenter of Mao’s resurgence.

    People in the south weren’t affected by ideology as much; I bet they didn’t have math books like this in Shanghai or Guangzhou.

  10. Nimrod Says:

    That’s right, some places had more of an acquiescence attitude, where there was a quote at the beginning of each chapter then they go on with business. This particular book was written by someone who was a real believer, it would appear.

  11. Chiangkaishek Says:

    China is not a free country for example wearing certain types of politically orientated clothing would get you arrested


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