In May of this year, a nearly decade-old Chinese textbook went viral over outcry about its ostensibly terrible illustrations. Though the elementary mathematics textbook has been in circulation for quite some time, it came suddenly under fire from the Ministry of Education, demanding that the state-run publisher amend the imagery, which was condemned as “tragically ugly” and inappropriate by social media users.
Photos of the pictures, which were viewed some four billion times on Chinese social media, and yielded millions of comments, were seen as ugly at best, and socially divisive at worst. The outcry triggered an investigation by the Ministry of Education, which culminated last week in the punishment of 27 officials being held responsible for the controversial imagery.
“The overall style of the illustrations do not conform to the aesthetic tastes of the public,” said a ministry statement, quoted in translation by Newsweek. “Some illustrated characters are ugly, show poor spirit and style, and do not reflect a positive image of our nation’s children.”
Beyond depicting so-called ugly children with bad attitudes, the investigation examined charges of inappropriate content, including boys grabbing girls around the chest or pulling their skirts, a game of double-dutch that features a girl with an upswept skirt revealing her underwear, a boy with a suggestive bulge in his pants, and another with an apparent leg tattoo. Certain commenters posited a more conspiratorial basis for the bad illustrations, pointing to a reversed Chinese flag, and some depictions of children’s clothing in the American flag colors, citing the books as having “evil intentions,” according to the website What’s on Weibo.
In a response that was not particularly timely, considering the almost decade-long tenure of these books in elementary schools across the country — from the Shandong province in the northeast to Yunnan in the south — Chinese authorities have finally weighed in on the issue. Education authorities specified 27 individuals, including the president of the publishing house, as having “neglected their duties and responsibilities,” in a statement released on August 22. Punishments have been issued, in the form of demerits, which can affect a Communist party member’s standing and future employment. The editor-in-chief and the head of the maths department editing office were also demerited and fired, and the illustrators and designers were “dealt with accordingly,” in unspecified ways.
The ministry promised to redouble its efforts over education materials, to ensure they would “always adhere to the correct political direction and value orientation.” And while a society up in arms about bad clip art might feel lightly ridiculous, it bears remembering that the American educational system is deeply fraught with questions of what constitutes an appropriate curriculum.