Sunday, December 17, 2006

Mum, what's a flamethrower for ?

I'd like to pick up on the story from John over at Sinosplice: "Military Weaponry for Kids". By all means, go over and read the whole article (and definitely don't forget to continue on to the link he provides to the Peer-See website about bizarre blocks. I won't link it here: go over and enjoy).

I am not going to explain again here what John has done much more eloquently and ironic than I ever could, but for reminiscence sake, let me just post one of the pictures that can be found in the children's book:

So is this what education in China has come down to: teaching infants how to draw machine guns and write a few characters along the line (note that the entire book has about 35 pages with vocabulary and drawings ranging from flamethrowers over missile launchers to air pistols)? Ever since I saw this article, I have been wondering how this kind of "educational material" would be received in our parts of the world and I am left to think it would be banned outright. The average age of the target audience must be about 5 to 6 years old, for Christ's sake !!! So if I were in a position to do so, I would revoke the business license of the "Beijing Children and Juvenile Publishing House" on the spot, so they wouldn't be allowed to publish anything again, notwithstanding any good stuff they may have published before.

Now I have been reading up on the comments on John's article as well, and I was surprised that not more commenters were flatly denouncing the idea of having this kind of material in a children's teaching book. The reaction sometimes found is this one:

"I think kids just like guns and war and bombs. I remember the first things I drew as a kid were these crazy war scenes. When I was 15 I was out blowing up bottles with my buddy’s .22 and shotgun. As I’m what might be called a pacifist now, all the exposure had little affect."

"Excellent renderings - these books continue the war-theme throughout society. It’s like kids playing cops and robbers, indians and cowboys… everything is the same as before (human emotions, needs, wants), technology changes (weapons of war, fax machine, Internet, phone, television, etc.)".

I totally do agree kids like weapons: in my toddler days (and for quite some years after that), I have been branding plastic swords, firing toyguns, "taken down" hordes of cowboys (since I always wanted to be with the Indians), but what we used were "just" swords and "just" guns. At least for me it was like this. Now I wonder what happens when you start differentiating on the names. I was very impressed with an article from Sam at "The Useless Tree" where he wrote the following on Bush and the war in Iraq:

He can't do anything because he does not have the words to capture the complexity of the situation. To be sure, "civil war" is only an approximation of a multidimensional conflict. But "civil war" is a starting point. Without that concept, there is really no way to dig into the dirty details and find a way out. And that is what reminds me of Confucius:

Naming enables the noble-minded to speak,and speech enables the noble-minded to act. Therefore, the noble-minded are anything but careless in speech.
Analects, 13.3

Bush, of course, is famously careless in speech. And his willful denial of the name "civil war" makes it impossible for him to act.

So, by reversal of this situation, the question for me is: what happens in the kids minds when you give them all the names ? How will they act ? If I were fed with all that different terminology, I am sure I would start to ask what it all is for ? Under which circumstance would I rather use this than that ? I'm looking forward to the answer from the education experts at the Beijing Publishing House to a kid's question what a flamethrower is needed for ? Shall we explain how in Vietnam entire villages were napalmed into oblivion with this equipment ? And how do you explain the use of the silencer, when all kids just adore wreaking havoc with tons of noise ? I bet it will make them sleep real tight if you tell them it is used to kill others in their sleep without waking up Mum and Dad.

For me, I totally agree with Sam that the name itself is a formidable power, albeit applied here in the other way than in his example.

But then I kept wondering why one would ever come up with the idea to have all this military wisdom in a children's book ? And the hypothesis I came up with was brought on to me by the very first comment to John's article:

Little boys like it. I have a poster of military equipment I picked up in a discount bookstore, I’m not sure if it was for kids or not, but now I know how to say things like Apache Attack Helicopter. And if you don’t know how to say something like .50 cal Desert Eagle, you’re lost in CounterStrike.

... you're lost in CounterStrike ... It suddenly struck me that the only reason this kind of stuff was making it into a children's book could be that the gaming industry was already trying to tie their future customers from childhood on, by learning them the vocabulary they would need later in the playing arcades and online. In a country where elementary schools are allowed to make educational trips to ... McDonalds, I would expect this hypothesis to be perfectly possible. The kind of money involved in the gaming business would require recruitment of the players from very early on, and unless someone proves me wrong, I believe this is one of their marketing vehicles. But since China doesn't seem to mind the publication of this kind of materials, I wish them good luck with cleaning up their mess.

Oh, and by the way, there's no harm with having this published in Beijing: all terrorists are located in Xinjiang anyway.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Um, you do know that first picture is probably fake right? Unless you got it directly from a Chinese school.