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Teaching World History at Chinese Universities: Past and Present

By Xia Jiguo

Published in World History Bulletin, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, Fall, 2008.

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Teaching World History at Chinese Universities: Past and Present

Xia Jiguo


I. Three Concepts:World History, World General History, Global History

The Ministry of Education in Chinarequires world history as one of eight history subfields. The other subfields are: the theory and philosophy of history, archaeology and museology, historical geography, the philosophy of historical documents, special history (courses focused on fairly narrow topics, such as the Renaissance), the ancient history of China, and modern Chinese history. Of these, the most important are the ancient history of China, modern Chinese history, and world history. The histories of all foreign countries are subsumed under the title world history. Generally speaking, teachers who are engaged in the teaching and studying of world history reside and practice in only one discrete teaching and research area. The main courses, or subjects, they offer include: world general history, special history, dynastic histories, national, or state, histories, and regional histories.

Among these courses, world general history is compulsory, the others are elective. Whereas world history is the history of anything outside of China, traditional world general history is a collage of national and regional histories. In this sense, it is somewhat similar to the world history survey as offered in the U.S. by those who are not comfortable or conversant with the new world history as represented by the A.P. World History curriculum and as promoted by the WHA. But a distinctive feature of world general history is that Chinese history is not included. The so-called new world history, especially as practiced in the U.S., which focuses on global relationships, systems, interactions, and comparative history is called global history by Chinese scholars, to distinguish it from world history and world general history as taught and practiced in China. So there are some real differences here.


II. The Development of World History Teaching at Chinese Universities

From the beginning of the 20th ?century to 1949, a curriculum of Foreign History was set up in all ?Chinese university History Departments, which mainly consisted of many kinds of Western histories. These included Western General History, the History of Greece, the History of the Roman Empire, Western Medieval History, Western Modern History, the History of England, the History of France, the History of theUnited States, and so on. Western General History was a required course for history students.. The teaching materials used were mainly written by Western scholars; few were compiled by Chinese scholars. Many of the Chinese professors had returned from study in Europe orAmerica.

After the founding of the People??s Republic of Chinain 1949, the discipline of world history greatly changed.

First, specific teaching and research sections of world history were set up in all History Departments. Today, teachers of world history account for about 40 per cent of the faculty of a department.

Second, the categories of world history have greatly increased in contrast to the pre-1949 period. The histories of some important countries are now taught. These include the former Soviet Union, theUnited States, theUnited Kingdom,France,Germany,Japan, and so on. There are also teachers who lecture on the History of Regions, such as Asia, Africa, andLatin America. Before 1949, these regions, or areas, as they are known in theU.S., were merely mentioned as the objects of colonialism in the curriculum of Western History. Today we also offer specific histories, such as the History of World War II, the Western Renaissance, and the Culture of Ancient Greece, the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.

Third, since 1949, Chinese universities have been teaching world general history. World general history is divided into four stages: Ancient, Medieval, Modern, and Contemporary. The 4-volume edition of World General History was published in 1962, as the first comprehensive teaching guide and curriculum for university-level world history. With historical materialism as its guiding principle, this book is deeply influenced by Soviet historical science. Since 1978, Chinese scholars have probed in-depth into the system of world general history, and many new textbooks have been published.


III. World History Teaching Conditions Today: A Survey

We at CapitalNormalUniversityconducted a survey in early 2005. The main aim was to provide practical information for scholars engaged in the study of world general history and to encourage teaching reforms in this field.


A. Statistical Information from the Teacher Questionnaire

We distributed a single questionnaire to 50 universities, inviting a teacher engaged in the teaching and study of world history to fill it out. We received responses from the following 37 universities: East China Normal University, Shandong University, Wuhan University, Fudan University, Beijing Normal University, Sichuan University, People’s University, Nanjing University, Nankai University, Northeast China University, Jilin University, Neimenggu University, Zhengzhou University, Shanghai University, Nanjing Normal University, Hunan Normal University, Hebei Normal University, Southwest China Normal University, Shanghai Normal University, Qufu Normal University, Shanxi University, Ningxia University, Heilongjiang University, Anhui Normal University, Middle China Normal University, Huaibei Coal Industry Teachers’ College, South China Normal University, Capital Normal University, Liaocheng University, Hubei Teachers’ College, Hunan University of Science, Xihua Normal University, Yan??an University, Anshan Teachers’ College, Guangxi University for Nationalities, Baotou Teachers’ College, and Jiangxi Science and Teachers’ College. It??s very clear, these universities cover almost every part of China. 17 of these universities are considered first-rate universities; 19 are the key normal universities of their province; and 4 are common universities (some are double-counted). Among the 37 persons who participated, 5 are deans or presidents of universities that teach or study world history, 14 are leading scholars in the discipline of world history, and l8 are common teachers of world history. We believe that this survey is sufficient to reflect the basic condition of world general history education inChina, and that its results provide abundant and comprehensive first-hand material that is thought-provoking.

At the 37 universities that responded, a total of 366 people are engaged in teaching and studying world history. Following is some background information about them.

Table 1: Age Distribution

Age Distribution

Number and Percentage

20-30 years

43 (12%)

31-40 years

135 (37%)

41-50 years

112 (31%)

51-60 years

68 (19%)

above 60 years

8 (2%)


Table 2: Highest Educational Level

Highest educational level?? Number and Percentage
A bachelor??s degree 59 (16%)
A master??s degree 107 (29%)
A doctoral degree 200 (54%)
Abroad experience 152 (42%)

Looking at the data above, especially at the large number of people who have been abroad for further study and who hold a doctoral degree or senior title, there is no doubt that there is a high level of achievement within the discipline of world history in recent years. Yet if we classify these 37 schools into three kinds according to the standard or level of the discipline of world history at each, we still find great differences among them.

Table 3: Teacher Qualifications

Type Number of universities Members employed Further study abroad Doctoral degree Senior capability
I 11 143 98 (69%) 101 (71%) 118 (83%)
II 17 158 49 (31%) 79 (50%) 106 (67%)
III 9 65 5 (8%) 20 (31%) 39 (60%)


With regard to the total number of class hours of world general history, we have information on 36 universities. At 1 university the program spanned 6 semesters; at 9 universities, 5 semesters; at 13 universities, 4 semesters; at 12 universities, 3 semesters; and at the remaining universities, 2 semesters. The total number of class hours at the different universities is shown in Table 4.


Table 4: Number of Class Hours of World General History Teaching

Universities Class hours
3 400 and above
12 301 to 399
12 251 to 300
4 201 to 250
4 151 to 200
1 150 and below

This reflects a fact, that is, world general history is changing now. Because ten years ago, almost every university had more than 400 class hours for world general history, and the same class hours for Chinese history. Now some universities are offering more elective courses.

We also know from the survey that 14 universities (38%) offered world general history in their non-history departments, 18 universities (49%)did not offer it at all, and 5 (15%) didn??t answer. Excluding the course of world general history, 80% of the universities offered more than 10 world history elective courses.

To gain a more in-depth view of the teaching methods and quality in the field of world general history, we developed the following selective questions.

l. Do you adopt multimedia techniques in your course (s)?

usually 13 persons (35%)
sometimes 20 persons (54%)
few 2 persons (5.5%)
never 2 persons (5.5%)

2. Which teaching methods are used in your world general history course?

thoroughly explain entire contents 1 person (3%)
emphasize key events and complex developments 14 persons (38%)
supplement with extra information to keep up with international studies 21 persons (57%)
instruct students to learn by themselves, supplemented with extra material based on international studies 7 person (19%)
other ways 1 person (3%)

From these results, we conclude that most teachers not only understand the basic foundations of world general history education, but they also incorporate advanced international research into their courses to widen the students’ horizon. To the subjective question, ??Do you have any suggestions for improving upon teaching methods??? many good ideas were offered, which mainly focused on several aspects mentioned below. As to the topic of multimedia teaching, l2 respondents stated that more multimedia methods should be put into practice; the source-building of multimedia teaching should be strengthened; documentary materials should be shared among institutions; and multimedia materials should be edited for use. Other teachers argued that multimedia methods should not be promoted too much, as they are only audio-visua1 aids and cannot replace the traditional methods of historical science. Nine teachers proposed that lectures should be combined with classroom discussion to motivate students to study. The textbooks on world general history, the teachers believe, should be revised constantly so that new study results can be incorporated; references should be appended to each chapter, and textbooks should include historical maps. The prevalent textbook World History should be revised as soon as possible.[1] In addition, it is imperative that teachers constantly improve their own knowledge of world history theory, methods, and research. In order to overcome the high degree of specialization, teachers should foster a broader view of world history. They should be familiar with the relevant materials and studies, reinforce communication with other scholars, and attach more importance to language training in both Chinese and English.

Looking beyond a world history which is everything but China, there is integrated global history, which has become the focus of international historiography since the 1980s. To gain the view of history teachers inChina on this subject, we asked the following questions:

l. Are you familiar with global history?

very 5 persons (15%)
a little 28 persons (75%)
heard of 4 persons (10%)


2. Do you give lessons in global history?

yes 24 persons (67%)
no 4 persons (11%)
no answer 8 persons (22%)


3. Have you ever read books about global history?

usually 6 persons (16%)
sometimes 29 persons (78%)
no 2 persons (6%)

The most popular global history books they read are: Stavrianos??s A Global History, Pomeranz??s The Great Divergence, Wallerstein??s Modern World System, Frank??s Reorient: Global Economy in the Asian Age, Spengler??s The Decline of the West, Toynbee??s The Study of History, and others. These results prove that teachers have a certain familiarity with the Western tradition and current international scholarship in world and global history.

Teachers articulated, however, widely varying views on global history, which are enlightening. Out of 37 teachers investigated nearly 30 offered their opinions on the topic. Some teachers made a positive evaluation of global history. Their arguments can be summarized in six points:

First, the field of global history is one that a rising China should take up and that is beneficial when trying to reestablish the world general history system after having gotten rid of the fetter of ideology. The key to global history lies in its completely new approach. It is neither a superficial change of traditional general history nor the result of a balanced history in area studies. Its focal point is not the nation but the greater world. Global history treats the globe as a whole from the angle of domestic politics, nation and race, geography and climate, cultural traditions, and diplomatic relations, and aims at investigating the features and trends of global history developments by exploring the exchanges and relationships among people, nations, regions, and countries. ?For Chinese Global history scholars, they should attempt to thoroughly abandon the influence of Eurocentrism and to express the particular Chinese understanding within the international discourse on world history.

Second, global history could macroscopical1y draw the general outline of the whole development of world history and avoid Eurocentrism.

Third, as a historical research method, global history is useful to understand the complex world and avoid treating world general history as combined or seriatim national histories.

Fourth, global history reflects an interdisciplinary approach and applies systematic thought and methods to historical research.

Fifth, in an era of globalization, global history opens up new research fields in the study of world history and indicates new ways for its future.

Sixth, global history provides the tools to study the history of the world in its entirety; it offers a structure for its development and highlights global trends.

Besides these positive reactions, teachers also expressed their perplexity and anxiety about how to apply global history in the course of teaching. Five points were raised. First, global history is an effective theoretical method for analyzing history and doing historical research. It emphasizes transnational relationships in the development of history and is helpful in deconstructing Eurocentrism and Sinocentrism. However, it should not be used when compiling textbooks and teaching courses. Especially in the field of ancient history, it has 1ed to an artificial exaggeration of relationships among ancient peoples. Therefore, global history brings many perplexities into teaching and therefore should not be proposed for the teaching of ancient history.

Second, although global history is very useful, its scope is more complicated and intimidating for students. Furthermore, the degree of difficulty of the courses increases rapidly. It therefore makes much more sense to teach history by focusing first on geographical areas. Once the students have mastered the key issues of world history, they are then more capable of grasping the concepts of global history.

Third, global history should be understood and comprehended fully by every teacher who teaches world history, even those who teach Chinese history. But the problem still remains, how to effectively teach global history well, how to incorporate it into the courses, and how to join theory and practice successfully.

Fourth, while global history is objective and scientific, it is nonetheless based on? microcosmic history. Above all, we must teach the essential historical facts. Only after this can we introduce the global dimension of history to students.

B. Statistical information from the student questionnaires

For the student survey, we distributed 340 questionnaires to students at 9 universities: Nankai University, ShandongUniversity, SichuanUniversity, EastChinaNormalUniversity, MiddleChinaNormalUniversity, TianjinNormalUniversity, QufuNormalUniversity, LiaochengUniversity, and CapitalNormalUniversity. We received 3l3 responses, from which we can draw some conclusions about the degree of students’ understanding of world general history and their assessment of teaching and textbooks, as well as their degree of satisfaction with this field. The main questions and feedback are presented below.

1. Do you like the course of world general history?

like 188 persons (60%)
generally like 114 persons (37%)
dislike 10 persons (3%)

We can conclude here that the undergraduates are interested in world general history, they want to know the world, including the history of the world and the world today. And they are generally satisfied with the world general history teaching conditions.

2. How often do your teachers of world general history use multimedia?

very often 87 persons (28%)
sometimes 101 persons (32%)
little 78 persons (25%)
never 48 persons (15%)

From the teacher questionnaire we found out that economic growth led to the improvement of teaching facilities in universities, which allows most teachers to use multimedia if necessary. However, from the student questionnaire we found that teachers do not use multimedia presentation enough.

3. What kind of teaching methods do your teachers of world general history often use? (multiple choice)

lectures 284 persons (91%)
discussions and disquisitions 125 persons (40%)
comparisons 105 persons (34%)
multimedia presentations 63 persons (20%)
others 15 persons (5%)

4. What kind of teaching methods are your favorites? (multiple choice)

lectures 99 persons (32%)
discussions and disquisitions 189 persons (60%)
comparisons 130 persons (42%)
multimedia presentations 138 persons (44%)
others 33 persons (11%)

Compare 3 and 4, we know most teachers are still using traditional teaching methods, such as lectures. In contrast, the discussion/disquisition approach is favored by the students. there are many reasons for this. The main reason is, the Chinese students tend to be shy in the past, when teachers ask them questions, generally there is no response. But now, the students are different, they are more active than before, so the teacher should change their teaching method, the sooner, the better.

5. What means do your teachers use to evaluate your performance? (multiple choice)

questions (quizzes) 50 persons (16%)
written tests 262 persons (84%)
homework 93 persons (30%)
research papers 182 persons (58%)
other means 27 persons (9%)

It??s very clear that teachers usually assess students by written tests. Surely this is connected with the teaching methods. Because of these, the Chinese undergraduates don??t have too much to do after class, and over 90% of them can pass the finals.

With regard to these current teaching conditions students suggested six points on how to improve the world general history program. First, it is necessity to read more foreign history masterpieces. For a beginner, teachers should introduce easier books and frequently conduct activities on reading and comprehension techniques.

Second, students want to obtain more perceptual knowledge about world general history. Multimedia, video documents, classical movies, and introductions to foreign customs are seen as good ways. In order to enhance students’ comprehension of geographical spaces, or ??spatial perception,?? textbooks should contain both characters and pictures, particularly history maps.

Third, teachers should talk more about important world topics and try to guide students from ancient to modem times.

Fourth, it is suggested to diversify the means of examination. For example, papers could be used in addition to final examinations.

Fifth, students expect to be offered advanced foreign language classes in order to be able to read more original documents from other countries. In addition, they propose to enforce the study of historical theories and methods and to extend class hours of world general history.

Above and beyond classroom teaching, more attention should be paid to students?? acquisition of knowledge by themselves, i.e. self-directed learning. We received the following responses to our questions.

1. Have you read any extra books?

usually 67 persons (21%)
sometimes 221 persons (70%)
none 24 persons (9%)


2. If you have read some, please list your favorites. The most popular books are as follows

History by Herodotus 14 persons
The Bible 10 persons
Germania by Tacitus 6 persons
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon 6 persons
Anabasis Alexandri by Arrian 5 persons
The civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by Jacob Burckhardt 4 persons

We also investigated the condition of students?? understanding of global history using the following questions:

1. Do you know something about the viewpoint of global history?

very much 2 persons
basic 154 persons
heard of 138 persons
none 20 persons

2. Have you read some books about global history?

regularly 9 persons
some 119 persons
only occasional 150 persons
none 35 persons

3. Which books have you read?

A Global History 73 persons
Modern World System 12 persons
Reorient: Global Economy in the Asian Age 12 persons
The Study of History 12 persons
The Great Divergence 4 persons

C. Conclusion

From the teacher and student surveys, we can sum up the current teaching conditions in world general history at Chinese universities. With the quick development of the Chinese economy, the increasing possibility of international and national communication, and especially the high-speed development of postgraduate education, teaching facilities have greatly improved and library resources have become abundant. In addition, teachers have improved their academic credentials and broadened their perspectives. All these factors have benefited teaching and made reforms possible.

At the same time, many problems need to be resolved in world general history education. First, since it is a great project to transform the traditional world general history into a real global history, world general history should be taught by sophisticated teachers in the third academic year. In the first and second-year courses, such as Chinese history, national history and historical theory and methodology should be arranged, which are helpful to lay the foundation for learning world general history. This is based on the following background. Now at Chinese universities, world general history is taught from the first academic year, and most of the teachers of this course are young, have not too much teaching experience. The sophisticated teachers like to give elective courses based on their research.

Second, it is necessary to improve textbooks. Our surveys of teachers and students have proven this point. We should compile textbooks on special areas and national history, omit the contents on national history in world general history textbooks, focus on the relations and mutual exchanges among different parts of the world.

Third, as the result of the second, the class hours of world general history at all universities may be standardized.

Fourth, teaching methods must be improved. We should change the traditional method to discussion and disquisition, guide students in solving problems independently while reading.

Finally, there need to be some changes in examinations and means of scoring students.



World History Bulletin, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, Fall, 2008.




[1] According to our survey 23 institutions use World History (six volumes), compiled by Wu Yujin and Qi Shirong.