HONG KONG — A little boy pulling up a girl’s dress. Another grabbing a classmate from behind, his hands across her chest. Bulges protruding from male students’ pants. Suspiciously pro-American images.
The illustrations can be found in a Chinese state-run publisher’s mathematics textbooks for elementary school students — books that have been used for years. They set off a furor in China after they were flagged on social media last week by angry commenters as crude, sexualized and anti-China.
The controversy has prompted the textbook publisher to apologize. China’s Ministry of Education at first said that it was ordering an inspection of illustrations in primary and secondary school textbooks. Then, on Monday, as anger spread online, the ministry announced a sweeping, nationwide investigation of all primary, secondary and university textbooks.
“The problems identified will be rectified immediately, and those responsible for violations of disciplines and regulations will be severely held accountable,” the ministry said on Monday. “There will be zero tolerance.”
Tang Jiafeng, an education writer, wrote on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform, that he felt “shocked, disbelieving, sad, and angry” about the math book illustrations.
“Primary school textbooks are the foundation of the country and the nation, and an important guarantee for the formation of children’s outlook on life and values,” he wrote. “It is impossible to overstate their importance.”
He called not just for corrections and apologies, but also for an investigation and for those responsible to be held accountable.
The outcry over what some viewed as lewd and otherwise offensive images in math books meant for impressionable minds comes as China has tightened its grip on ideological content and sensitive history in textbooks. Universities have been ordered to emphasize the study of Marxism and the writings of China’s top leader, Xi Jinping. In 2015, Yuan Guiren, China’s education minister, ordered a closer examination of foreign textbooks and said that those that promote Western values should be banned from classrooms.
The math books, published by the People’s Education Press, a large state-run company controlled by the Ministry of Education, have been around for about a decade, according to Chinese news reports. The illustrations were approved in 2013 for students in first to sixth grades, the reports said. Just how the problematic drawings evaded scrutiny all these years is unclear. Some social media users highlighted the images last week, prompting parents and educators to voice their outrage.
People’s Education Press offered no explanation for how the illustrations had been selected. But they were attributed to the studio of an artist named Wu Yong, who was attacked online and accused of harming China. The artist, who could not be reached for comment, has not publicly addressed the controversy.
Some of the drawings are odd or silly, like children sticking out their tongues. But others show children appearing to grope classmates on a playground. Another showed a schoolgirl with her underwear exposed as she played a game. Many critics said the drawings made the children look ugly, with wide-set, droopy eyes.
Others argued that the schoolbooks also had anti-China messages, such as an incorrectly rendered Chinese flag. Still some found allegedly pro-foreign images, like a boy flying in a biplane similar to Japanese and American planes. Some even pointed to images of children wearing clothes with what looked like stars and stripes in the colors of the American flag.
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“As a father of a child, to be honest, I am really worried,” Li Yuguo, head of the sports institute at Beijing Oriental University, wrote on Weibo.
“For a child just beginning school to encounter such an illustration, from a young age to imperceptibly receive this kind of unhealthy influence,” he added, “this is not a matter of art; it involves education, culture and even overseas infiltration. There is no small thing when it comes to children; it affects our future.”
The publisher, responding to the public anger, at first said only that it was evaluating its textbooks.
“We have organized experts to study them carefully, and humbly adopt good opinions and suggestions from all walks of life,” the company said in a statement. “We have begun to redraw the covers and some illustrations of the relevant mathematics textbooks to improve the painting method and elevate the artistry.”
But the criticism only grew. Two days later, the publisher apologized.
“We have carried out serious reflection, and feel deep self-blame and guilt, and hereby express our deepest apologies,” it said, adding that it would find a new team of illustrators to redraw the math textbooks.