12 Things You Can Learn About World History From Manga, And More

posted on by Eric Stimson
Medieval Chinese poverty relief, the dark side of imperialism, and mustaches galore

While there are plenty of manga and anime that deal with historical topics (to varying degrees of accuracy), most of them are fictional or heavily fictionalized representations of the events they are based on and the eras they are set in. In Japan, since manga are an integral aspect of the national culture, a variety of educational manga exist to let schoolkids learn about what's going to be on the test next week without studying the hard way. Some of them are now available in English — the Ohmsha line of manga explaining heavy scientific and mathematical subjects like The Manga Guide to Biochemistry and The Manga Guide to Databases. While these are fine and probably more in demand considering how difficult these subjects are for most, as yet there are no English versions of manga covering history. Until then, there's always Larry Gonick's excellent American series, The Cartoon History of the Universe, but lately I've been exploring the world history series published by Shueisha, simply titled World History (Sekai-no Rekishi).

Joan of Arc as a bishōjo.

Napoleon and Mehmet Ali, founder of modern Egypt,
in chibi form.

Illustrated by various artists and developed in consultation with many professors, usually from the prestigious Tokyo University, it does an overall good job of expressing major concepts and important eras in world history without going over the heads of its young audience (it seems to be aimed at elementary schools). Considering that not everyone remembers everything from school anyway, it wouldn't be too condescending to even consider giving this to an older person (although some of the dialogue might be overly basic if translated literally). It's a 20-part series with each volume covering a different major era — medieval China and Korea, the Industrial Revolution, etc. Each volume is then broken up into four chapters explaining four of the era's key events or processes — Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and the emergence of Christianity in the Greece & Rome book, for instance. How the events are explained varies — for more personality-driven, movie-friendly topics, key historical figures act out the story in abridged form, while for broader processes like the settlement of the American West or the independence of Africa, ordinary people are invented to illustrate the relevant concepts.

Here are some of the things that I learned about world history through manga... and some of the things I'm still not so sure about.

12 Things I Learned About World History

1. Don't forget Zambia. Book 19, on the independence of Asian and African countries, tells the story of Lubuto, an aspiring Olympic athlete who works a day job as a copper miner. His aspirations are used as a metaphor for Africans' aspirations for a better future under native governments. What I found most interesting about this story was its setting: Zambia. Talking About... Africa in world history is rare enough, but focusing on Zambia is pretty unique. Usually southern Africa stories focus on South Africa, with its stirring apartheid struggle, or Zimbabwe, with its liberator-turned-tyrant Robert Mugabe, or maybe Angola and Mozambique with their long-running civil wars. But Zambia? It's a pretty humble choice given the panoply of turbulent African countries to choose from.

Zambia's new flag is unveiled at the Olympics closing ceremony.

2. After the Opium War, China faced a massive peasant rebellion led by a guy who thought he was Jesus' little brother. The Opium War, in which an overconfident China was decisively defeated by drug-pushing Britishers, is well-known. But how many non-Chinese know about the Taiping Rebellion, a much larger civil war that unfolded in its aftermath? Its leader, Hong Xiuquan, was a failed civil service examination candidate who became convinced the Christian God wanted him to establish a Christian paradise on Earth. His uprising was based on equality among ethnicities, classes and gender, but most of his followers degenerated into the usual banditry, and the long war ended up weakening China even more — and at a time when it could hardly afford to. World History portrays this by showing us the saga of Chan Mingwan, who melodramatically swears to avenge the deaths of his uncle (an opium addict) and father (killed in the Opium War), only to end up fighting in the Taiping Rebellion. His disillusionment over the rebels' cause introduces a fairly nuanced point: that sometimes, fighting for the cause of the poor and downtrodden against a corrupt tyranny isn't always the right thing.

3. India had a Joan of Arc, too. Lakshmibai, queen of Jhansi, lived during the 1800s, when the British were slowly but surely seizing India's various principalities. They refused to recognize her as rightful heir to the throne when her husband died and threw her out of the palace. A few years later, a mutiny broke out among Britain's Indian soldiers, and the flames fanned into a national rebellion. Defying cultural expectations, the queen joined in and personally fought off the British as they tried to seize Jhansi. Her story had a sad ending, though — she was killed in battle and the rebellion was smothered. But Lakshmibai is revered today as a heroine in India.

4. Felipe II drove Spain to bankruptcy despite all the gold and silver from the New World. Felipe II, Spain's notoriously proud and inept king in the 1500s, inherited a country swollen with riches from the New World and taxes from the bustling ports of the Netherlands, yet managed to blow it on an expensive war in the Netherlands and a lavish palace in the outskirts of Madrid. (A debt left behind by his father didn't help either.) The manga portrays this by showing Miguel de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote) returning from war to find Madrid in tatters and overrun with fellow wounded veterans.

5. Sometimes, even well-intentioned policies don't work out that well. Wang Anshi is not a very famous figure among Americans; even those interested in Chinese history will likely be unfamiliar with him. He wasn't a flashy military person or an obvious subject for an epic period movie. Wang was simply an official in the Song Dynasty (1000s) who came from a poor area and went into government service determined to better the lot of China's hungry masses. His reforms included land redistribution, government loans to peasant farmers, and tighter regulation of wealthy merchants. Unfortunately, they encountered the opposition of China's entrenched scholar-bureaucracy class, who resented their loss of status and positions; his reforms ended up coming undone later in life. It's an interesting story, but certainly not something I'd expect to see in a kids' manga. You'd think it would focus more on China's problems with the barbarians at this time, not on tax reform and state budget regulation!

"Even the heavens oppose me": drought shrivels Wang's dreams.

6. "Being bossed around and having too much freedom are both bad." So concludes the daughter of Wang Zhiming, a (fictional) teacher who suffers persecution during China's Cultural Revolution. The Mao Zedong era is a touchy one in Chinese history, since although, by most accounts, his policies were utter disasters and wrought great suffering and upheaval on the Chinese nation, he is still revered as the People's Republic's founding father. In general the manga does not skimp on showing how calamitous the Cultural Revolution was, but — perhaps surprisingly considering how he was brutally beaten by the Red Guards — Wang refuses to blame the Chinese government, and points out to his peeved daughter that America, China's arch-rival, may have more freedom, but it also has a greater wealth gap, and "it's a harsh society for the weak." Mao himself also appears and is depicted somewhat sympathetically as a man determined to realize his ideals no matter what.

7. There was an older Summer Palace inspired by Western architecture. The Summer Palace, an imperial retreat of palaces, lakes and gardens, is one of Beijing's top tourist attractions today. But did you know there was an older Summer Palace? The "Yuanmingyuan" was built near the modern Summer Palace in the early 1700s. The Chinese emperors at that time were influenced by Jesuit missionaries in the imperial court and wanted to see fountains and European-styled architecture in their garden. Even though it only occupied a corner of the vast complex, it was still a significant symbol of the Jesuit imprint on the Qing dynasty. Sadly, the palace was burned down by rampaging Anglo-French forces in the Second Opium War.

8. Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were equally important in India's struggle for independence. Most Western depictions of India's independence struggle, notably the movie Gandhi, portray the Mahatma as the Founding Father of India. World History acknowledges his importance while focusing more on Nehru, the more practical and politically oriented of the two. Considering that Gandhi, with his spiritual aura and lovable doctrine of non-violence, is the more charismatic figure, this is a surprising choice. And since Nehru ultimately became the head of Congress (India's founding political party) and India's first prime minister, it's one I admire.

9. Medieval Korea had some noteworthy accomplishments, too. Japan's relationship with Korea has never been a very nice one. Most Japanese just seem to ignore their neighbor; others look down on it as a whiny inferior. (See the manga Kenkanryu, for instance.) I was impressed with the chapter on medieval Korea, therefore, since it acknowledges Korean achievements in woodblock printing and developing a sane writing system. Even wilder, though, is that it makes Japan seem like the bad guy, pointing out that Japanese lords pillaged Korean pottery and presenting Korea as the protagonist in Japan's invasion of 1592. Yi Sunshin, the admiral who turned back the Japanese fleet with his fearsome "turtle ships," is called a hero. Now that's something most countries would have a hard time doing.

10. The Crusades were really a money-making scheme. The chapter on the Crusades covers the main points, but chooses to focus on the mercantile backdrop rather than the clash of arms in the foreground. We follow a Genoese merchant family who have the pope's ear and make a killing selling ships, food, and supplies to the Crusaders. One of them asks, "What's wrong with a merchant thinking about making money?" but grows disillusioned with the increasing crassness of the Crusades. He reaches his breaking point when this shady character, a merchant of Venice (yes!), sells his adopted son into slavery as part of the infamous Children's Crusade. Maybe it has something to do with the advising professor's background in studying medieval cities.

"I don't like that Giuliano... I shiver each time I see that cunning face."

11. Indian soldiers fought as mercenaries in British colonial wars in Africa. World History includes a chapter on "the Great Powers' invasion of Africa" which bounces around the different African conflicts like the other Africa chapter. It introduces readers to a fictional character called Jahan, a Sikh mercenary fighting for the British in the war against the Mahdi (a Muslim rebel) in Sudan. He questions why he is fighting for a ravenous empire like Britain and decides he is doing it to survive. Eventually, though, he is tragically killed in the Boer War, and decides as he dies that this was his punishment for fighting for hire and tells his young Sudanese protégé, Wami, to live until the day Africa is free again.

12. Charlemagne had a cool sword. At one point in Book 6 the boisterous emperor Karl the Great (Charlemagne) boasts of his treasured sword, "a sign of the power bestowed on me by God! Wherever it proceeds, infidels tremble and my opponents flee!" At first I assumed this was an incident of fantasy-inspired fancy, but it turns out Karl's sword, "Joyeuse," actually is legendary, and it (or what was said to be it) was later used to crown the kings of France.

Unfortunately, for all that these books taught me, there were a few cases in which I was led astray. Here are some "anti-lessons" that caught my eye:

7 Things I'm Pretty Sure Are Wrong

1. Americans bow when they thank someone. Or at least, that's what Henry Ford does when Thomas Edison grants him permission to develop his car.

2. Genghis Khan was a pretty nice guy. World History presents the infamous Mongol ruler Genghis Khan as a benevolent ruler who seeks to unify the Mongol tribes with a "wide heart" rather than just pure strength. He prevents his friend Jamukha from killing prisoners of war because "they went to fight for their own reasons. It's not like they have a grudge against us or anything." He wants to end the cycle of bloodshed and war on the steppes and weeps when he executes Jamukha for fighting against him. In reality, of course, the Mongols were bloodthirsty nomads feared across the Old World for their merciless destruction, and Genghis Khan was no exception. But I guess you can't expect a kids' manga to get that graphic.

"Do not condemn me to a life of disgrace. Do as I would and put the defeated to death."

3. This is how the medieval pope and Holy Roman Emperor corresponded. Book 6 has a whole chapter on the Investiture Controversy, a famous event among medievalists and Europeans but somewhat obscure in America. Since the Church had so much secular authority in the Middle Ages, and the Holy Roman Emperor had Church backing, the secular and ecclesiastical hierarchies were intermingled. This led to the Holy Roman Emperor appointing bishops. In the 1000s, a strong pope, Gregory VII, tried to appoint a bishop instead, leading to a bitter feud between the two leaders that tore apart the Empire. World History portrays this in comical terms, with the pope cackling in glee over the prospect of sending the emperor to Hell and the emperor fantasizing about tearing off the pope's cloak and giving him a good kick in the rear. It also shows their letters looking like something a Japanese kid would pass to the desk behind him in class.

"Meeting Declined," "Not at Home," "Don't Come!," etc.

4. Rich white men in the 1700s wore mustaches. At least according to Book 14. I'm not entirely sure why it does this, but my theory is that since facial hair was the fashion when Japan opened to the West in the late 1800s, that look is assumed to be more widespread than it actually was. At first, I was bothered when it showed generic Founding Fathers with mustaches, but the worst offense has to be Spain's King Carlos III.

Compare to the actual Carlos III.

5. George Washington looked like this. In general I feel World History does a good job of portraying its historical figures, but occasionally it makes some odd artistic choices. This one stands out for me. On the cover I thought he was supposed to be Thomas Jefferson at first. There's even a portrait of him in the book to show how different he actually looked! It's particularly inexcusable for me, since I live about 15 minutes from Washington's house.

6. Byzantine emperors used these stamps. Here we see a Byzantine emperor validating Charlemagne as a true "Roman emperor" with a kanji stamp.

7. Harry Truman also had a mustache. Seriously, what is with these guys and mustaches?


There were some other odds and ends that I discovered while reading these manga, but none of them really fit into the above two lists. They're too interesting to pass up, though, so they're mentioned below.

Honorable Mentions of World History

1. The dream that you wish will come true... in America. World History's Book 14 is oddly nationalist for America, hailing it as a land of freedom and equality where anyone has a chance at success. It demonstrates this with the tale of Henry Ford, whose determination first to build a gas engine, then a car, then to sell cars to the masses is portrayed in a manner akin to a shounen manga hero. Sure, his dad might be against him leaving the farm to tinker in a workshop, but with pluck and hard work he can do it! Right? The manga even portrays his wife, Clara, as a sort of cute sidekick with a crush on him.

2. The Roman emperor Nero was a tyrannical lunatic. Nero is one of the more problematic Roman emperors — he's traditionally shown as a demented weirdo more interested in the theater than governing, but more recent historians are rethinking his legacy and considering the impact of bias on the historical accounts. World History ignores all that and shows him as a selfish punk who killed his mom because she was annoying and became overjoyed at the great fire in Rome since it would give him an excuse to persecute the Christians. To be fair, that's the traditional account, and the facts aren't pretty, but I still got a kick out of seeing a crazy-looking teenage emperor cackling with glee.

3. There was a pacifist movement in Japan during the Russo-Japanese War. Japan's treatment of its imperial era is probably the most controversial subject in Japanese historiography. While I personally feel the Japanese textbook controversy is overblown, in general, Japan is reluctant to face the facts of its imperial era. Yet, World History is strikingly progressive in its coverage. It portrays imperialism generally as a global scourge, and implies that Japan was led astray by its desire to mimic the West. Book 15 follows a patriotic Japanese military doctor who grows disillusioned with his country's brutal treatment of Korea. I'm not sure how realistic this is, but it also mentions some real-life figures who opposed the Russo-Japanese War, like the socialist newspaper editor Shuusui Koutoku and the poet Akiko Yosano, whose poem "Thou Shalt Not Die" bitterly castigates the emperor for dispatching his sons to their deaths in China.

Our hero intervenes in a riot.

4. Otto von Bismarck had a sentimental side. Otto von Bismarck is remembered mostly as a stern, clever schemer who orchestrated the formation of the German Empire through a series of war and duplicitous political machinations. That comes through a lot in the manga, but World History also shows Bismarck as having a more soft, sentimental side: as he lays dying, he daydreams of the wind, fragrant grass, and great trees of the German countryside. This sort of idealization of nature seems a lot more Japanese than German, but Bismarck was a landed aristocrat, after all, so who knows?

5. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were the best of Frenemies. For some reason Book 14 spends a lot of time on Abraham Lincoln's relationship with Stephen Douglas. They're shown comically bickering during the famous 1858 campaign, and Douglas rudely taunts Lincoln as a backwoods nobody and a "noppo" (beanpole). But then after the Confederacy secedes Douglas shows up at Lincoln's door and volunteers his services in "protecting the Union." Lincoln is later heartbroken to learn of Douglas's sudden death. It's a touching relationship, if subtly undermined by Douglas's goofy caricature.

[Images from Wikipedia and Social Studies for Kids]

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