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“Chinese People Forgot Their Own Culture”: Why Confucian Education is Making a Comeback

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In two small classrooms in Harbin, a city in northeastern China, young students take turns leading their classmates through recitations of the Confucian Analects, guided by two teachers and a volunteer.

The two-room private school, where tuition costs 2,500RMB (around 355USD) per month, is one instance in a wider trend that sees some people returning to traditional Confucian culture, whether in terms of dress, or by taking leave of the state-run education system altogether.

A family leaves Shanghai’s Confucian Temple

The school offers a form of instruction known in China as dujing (读经), or “reciting classics,” and sometimes as guoxue (国学), or national studies. Schools like this not only emphasize classic texts by Confucius and his followers, but promote a controversial view of students’ development and capabilities popularized by a Taiwanese professor and self-styled education advocate named Wang Caigui, whose methods have been criticized by graduates of the dujing system. A 2018 Xinhua report estimates there are 1,500 Confucian schools existing nationwide, while staff at the Harbin school estimate that four or five full-time Confucian schools exist in Harbin, a city of 9.5 million.

Supporters of Confucian education — though not necessarily as a substitute for the state-run system — see the spread of dujing as a kind of grassroots movement led by parents and educators, some of whom feel that earlier generations abandoned authentic and indigenous Chinese culture during the many reforms of the 20th century. At the same time, changes in government policy that increased the proportion of classics material on the national college entrance exam, or gaokao, seem to indicate official support for guoxue.

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Some have pointed to these policy changes as evidence of burgeoning nationalism, or what education officials call wenhuazixin (文化自信, “cultural confidence”).

“From [1919] until 2019, Chinese people forgot their own culture,” says a volunteer at the Harbin school, surnamed Zhang, who became interested in classics education as an adult and now enrols his son in the preschool group. “All the literature and trends produced from then until now, none of it has a foundation in Chinese culture.”

According to Zhang, besides reading the canonical Confucian text, or jingdian (经典), and some Buddhist works, the students participate in physical education — usually taiqi — and study art and music drawn from both the Chinese and Western canon, like Picasso and Van Gogh. While the students in Harbin take turns reciting, a speaker softly plays a recording in English.

Whether the Confucian schools serve as a replacement for, or complement to, the state-run system depends on the student’s age, and points toward the complicated relationship between private and public education in China. State-run education in China is mandatory from age six to 12 or 13, roughly a middle school level. While students in the preschool group can attend Confucian schools without restriction, like any private school, students over the age of six must arrange matters with the state-run school, according to an instructor at the Harbin school surnamed Chen. These older students attend class for perhaps one semester or a year before they return to the state-run school.

Once students reach the age of 13, however, some enter the second, more controversial phase of Confucian education, which more closely involves Wang Caigui.

Wang Caigui’s 20th Century

Taiwanese professor Wang Caigui, famous for two decades of education advocacy both within and outside the Chinese mainland, is also the founder of the Wenli Academy, the flagship Confucian school established in Wenzhou in 2015. Chen and Zhang both cite Wang frequently, and say they have attended his lectures; their school also uses textbooks edited and published by Wang.

Two elements underlie Wang’s activist stance on education. The first is the rather uncommon view that children under 13 lack the ability to think critically and interpret texts, whether the Analects or Macbeth. In a video posted by the Wenli Academy, he calmly explains that students should simply “recite and memorize,” an attitude that he confidently prescribes while touring China and abroad to promote his education methods.

Sixth Tone reports that many of his former students, who attended the more advanced dujing schools and left the state-run system, came to criticize and even regret their experience. Trained only in the narrow methods prescribed by Wang, these graduates left feeling that their education was completely derailed, and that more conventional goals, such as attending university, are unattainable for them now.

The second, perhaps more widely held of Wang’s views is that traditional Confucian education and philosophy — in this case understood as the foundation of Chinese culture — was abandoned early in the 20th century, and should be recovered for a new era.

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Such philosophical and scholarly institutions, once the bedrock of the Chinese education and government system, were indeed dismantled as part of modernization reforms in the early 20th century. A backlash against Confucianism was building throughout the 1900s and ’10s, when radical reformers like Cai Yuanpei — Minister of Education for the brand-new Republic of China, and later the first President of prestigious Peking University — believed that China’s traditions virtually guaranteed its continued marginalization at the hands of European and American colonial powers.

China’s imperial examination system — the most important method of transferring knowledge of these philosophical texts — was abolished in 1906, and over a decade later in 1919, the May Fourth Movement erupted at Peking University, intensifying and expanding political demands for reform.

Cai Yuanpei — who passed the imperial examination in his early 20s but would later base his education philosophy on Kant’s aesthetic theories — is one of the most influential participants in a debate that raged throughout the century to follow. Should China abandon traditional philosophy in favor of so-called modern thought — usually but not always European — or preserve Confucian philosophy, which, for some, constitutes China’s spiritual and cultural core?

Wang Caigui, and those who subscribe to his education philosophy, fall firmly in the latter camp.

Related:

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Zhang says that returning to a lost cultural inheritance is an important next step in China’s development, one that can re-establish “cultural confidence” that was lost, according to the Wenli materials, between 1912 and 1994, when the flagship school was founded.

He states:

“As more people begin to solve basic issues, they have enough to eat and enough to wear, and their life becomes more comfortable, they begin to look for something spiritual. That something is their own culture.”

The influence of just one school, as Zhang sees it, is not very large. “There are only a couple dozen students here,” he says, “maybe two or three hundred in the city. In terms of one city or one province, the influence is very small.” More important, they say, is the increased time spent on classics in the public schools. “Once one or two generations have developed this way, cultural knowledge as a whole will rise to a large extent,” says Zhang.

The Wenli Academy, on the other hand, represents a long-term investment in the future of Confucian education, or a “Millennium Promise,” as one video puts it. By 2030, the website claims, Wenli Academy graduates will “go out to China, the world, and the world’s top academic forums” to make outstanding contributions.

“After 100 years,” says Zhang, the cultural contributions from the past century “will have vanished completely. Of more value is China’s 2,500 years of culture.”

Header image: Pixabay

Daniel Weaver
    Daniel Weaver is a writer and a 2019 Fulbright Fellow researching Chinese contemporary art. You can follow him on Twitter (@danielaxweaver) and Instagram (@daniel_wherever) or contact him at danielaxweaver.com