The drawings, found in a series of math textbooks used by Chinese primary schools for nearly a decade, are controversial for a variety of reasons.
Some Chinese netizens criticized the photos of children with small droopy, wide eyes and large foreheads as ugly, offensive and racist.
Others have been outraged by what they see as sexual overtones in the drawings. Some photos show little boys with a bulge in their pants that looks like the outline of their genitals; in an illustration of children playing a game, a boy has his hands on a girl’s chest while another pulls a girl’s skirt; in another drawing, a girl’s underwear is on display as she jumps rope.
Netizens also accused the illustrations of being “pro-USA”, as they show several children wearing clothes patterned with stars and stripes and in the colors of the American flag.
A drawing showing an inaccurate rendering of the stars on the Chinese flag has been accused of being ‘anti-China’.
Outrage over the illustrations has dominated discussions on Chinese social media since Thursday, when photos of the drawings first circulated online. Several related hashtags have racked up tens of millions of views on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform.
Many expressed shock and anger that such “substandard” illustrations not only made it into textbooks published by the state-owned People’s Education Press, the nation’s largest textbook publisher founded in 1950, but had gone unnoticed for so many years (the textbooks have been in use nationwide since 2013 .) Others wondered how these textbooks passed the country’s notoriously strict publication review process.
Nationalist influencers were quick to blame it on “Western cultural infiltration”, alleging – without providing evidence – that illustrators were secretly working for “foreign forces”, particularly the United States, to corrupt the soul of innocent Chinese schoolchildren.
Amid the uproar, the popular education press said Thursday it was recalling the textbooks and that it redesigning the artwork – but that failed to assuage public anger.
On Saturday, China’s Ministry of Education intervened, ordering the publisher to “rectify and reform” its publications and ensure the new version would be available for the fall semester. He also ordered a “thorough inspection” of school textbooks nationwide to ensure that teaching materials “adhere to correct political orientations and values, promote outstanding Chinese culture, and conform to the aesthetic tastes of the public.”
But the campaign is not only about aesthetic and moral values - there is also an ideological component. Textbooks have been central to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s efforts to tighten ideological control over the country’s youth and push back against the influence of “Western values”.
Criticism of textbooks also turned into personal attacks on illustrators.
In a sign of the scale of nationalist anger, even famed graphic designer Wuheqilin – who made a name for himself poking fun at Western countries with his ultra-nationalist works – has come under fire. Nationalists accused Wuheqilin of aiding anti-China forces after suggesting that the poor quality of artwork was likely partly the result of low commissions offered to designers – a problem he said the industry had faced for years .
“The textbooks exposed in recent netizen campaigns are horrifying. Lessons from the Hong Kong and Xinjiang regions have sounded the alarm to us that problematic textbooks are not a matter of aesthetics, but a threat to the ideological security of the country and the future of the nation,” Qin An, a professor at Tianjin University, was quoted by the Global Times.
“The illustrations in many textbooks contain overtly Westernized elements that vilify the Chinese. They are a clear sign of ideological struggle,” Qin told the newspaper.
“I fear this has become a politically charged issue that does not allow for an unbiased review of the relevant facts,” said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.
Paul Huang, father of a five-year-old in the southern city of Guangzhou, said while he was happy to see poorly designed illustrations removed from schoolbooks, he feared the issue had been politicized.
“As a parent, compared to infiltration by foreign forces, I’m more concerned about overtly strict censorship of content that could have provided children with a freer and more diverse perspective,” he said.
“Such censorship makes our textbooks increasingly conservative and boring, which is not good for children’s development.”
Some publishers have already been affected.
On Saturday, 7.Hi Books, a manga publisher in the eastern city of Hangzhou, apologized to its readers for having to postpone the publication of its comics.
“We have been informed today that due to a social incident caused by a certain publisher, all published children’s picture books have entered a self-inspection phase, and our unpublished comics will have to be postponed accordingly,” he said on Weibo.
In the comments section, many readers said they saw it coming.
“It starts again. They never regulate what should be regulated and only target those who shouldn’t,” said the top comment with 30,000 upvotes.