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Shanghai Textbook Brings Love Into Heart of Education

September 26, 2004|Ralph Frammolino | Times Staff Writer

SHANGHAI — Love is in the air. Now it's also in the Chinese public school curriculum.

Determined to help students cope with teenage hormones, educators in this booming seaside city have unveiled a textbook that features a chapter on the nature of romantic love -- a topic that has long been taboo in China's socially conservative educational system.

The chapter, entitled "Love Is Like a Song," is part of a new, ninth-grade Chinese-language textbook being introduced in Shanghai, starting this year with 20 middle schools.

It includes one letter, two poems and two longer literary selections, including a passage from the classic Charlotte Bronte novel "Jane Eyre," aimed at encouraging students to take a "more rational" approach to the swirling emotions they will feel as they go through puberty, said Fan Shougang, chief editor of the volume.

"We want them to understand that love is beautiful. Love is not superficial. Love needs good understanding of its meaning. And love needs preparation," Fan said.

"We warn them about the danger of rushing into it," he added. "We try to encourage them not to try it out at an early age."

Caveats aside, the love chapter has created a ruckus in the media and among some parents, who worry that all the talk might give their children ideas. Unlike in the United States, where school crushes are a part of growing up and Donny Osmond still croons about puppy love on oldies stations, the Chinese take a dim view of "early love."

Fearful that teenage romance will turn serious students into lip-locked dolts, parents and teachers have enforced a strict cultural silence surrounding early love as part of an overall strategy to discourage fraternization between the maturing sexes. Some colleges require even married students to live apart while they are enrolled.

Sometimes, the result of all this Chinese-style Puritanism has been downright tragic. In one recent case, newspapers reported that a 13-year-old girl killed herself by drinking rat poison because her grandmother tried to prevent her from falling in love.

But as China has opened itself to the more expressive -- and sex-laden -- influences of Western advertising and entertainment, young couples have become increasingly demonstrative in public, walking down busy shopping streets holding hands.

This new attitude dovetails with statistics indicating that the current wave of teenagers is hitting puberty about a year earlier than did students 15 years ago, reflecting a worldwide trend, said Yang Xiong, director of the Juvenile Research Institute of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

Today's middle-school students are experiencing a "relatively earlier sexualization," Yang said -- in some cases before they turn 11. Meanwhile, Chinese educators and their textbooks had been stuck in a "backward" approach, he added.

About the only mention of romance in previous textbooks was a widely repeated story called "Revolutionary Love," Yang recalled. The tale describes two Communist cadres who fall in love during the days of struggle before the 1949 "liberation," are arrested and arrange to be secretly married the day they are executed.

By comparison, the new ninth-grade textbook represents a kinder, gentler approach to love as well as a giant step forward in reaching today's youth, Yang said.

"You need to guide them in the right way in order to make sure they don't have to rely on the rebel stuff on the Internet, to make sure they have healthy and safe attitudes about love."

Xi Yuecheng, a serious-minded eighth-grader from the Shanghai area, agreed. The 14-year-old said she looked forward to hearing what the textbook had to offer when it is introduced in her school next year.

"On TV, there are a lot of actors and actresses from Hong Kong and Taiwan dramas, and they're always talking about love," Xi said. "I need to understand love ... and I hope to learn about it from the textbook."

Fan, a senior editor at the Shanghai Education Publishing House, said it took a year to winnow 100 potential entries to the five featured in the 18-page chapter.

It includes a letter by Russian educator Vasily Sukhomlinsky, a poem by Russian great Alexander Pushkin, a passage by Su Tong of "Raise the Red Lantern" fame and a fiery excerpt from "Jane Eyre," in which the title character speaks passionately of the desire for equality in her relationship with Mr. Rochester.

A poem by modern Chinese writer Shu Ting compares love to the intertwined roots and separate trunks of trees.

The readings are accompanied by exercises that ask students to summarize what it takes to love somebody (answer: responsibility, respect, sharing life's ups and downs), collect a few love stories and give their opinions on romantic relationships conducted over the Internet.

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