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September 6, 2011

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Debating a Confucian education

A few children attend expensive private Confucius schools where they memorize classics and imbibe traditional values, but many parents fear old-fashioned education is a liability in the modern world. Shi Shouhe, Zhou Huimin and Zhao Yeping report.

As hundreds of millions of Chinese pupils head back to school for a new semester, a handful of children in an old-fashioned private school in the southern island province of Hainan are getting a radically different Confucian education.

It's about as far as you can get from modern, test-oriented schooling with piles of homework and enormous pressure. For these children there are no quizzes and no homework.

Instead, they focus on reciting and memorizing Chinese literary masterpieces from thinkers and philosophers like Confucius and Mencius.

Fu Yaqing, 7, is one of seven children attending the private Confucius school. Rising as early as 5:30am daily, Fu and her classmates begin their day by paying tribute to Confucius, standing in a line and bowing three times in front of a picture of the acclaimed philosopher who lived around 2,500 years ago.

The children are also asked to express gratitude to their parents, teachers and classmates before every meal.

Their daily tasks include reciting and memorizing classics, including The Four Books of Confucianism: The Analects of Confucius, The Book of Mencius, The Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean.

Although most of the students barely know a word of English, they are also asked to recite, but not to learn, some Shakespearean works, such as "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Students are taught calligraphy but no other subjects, such as math and science, are taught. They received physical education.

Moral principles

Fu's mother Zhou Xiaoyun, an avid admirer of the Chinese classics, says it is a waste of time for her child to spend six years in an ordinary school studying subjects that are too simple.

"Children this age have the best memories, and memorization of Chinese classical literary works will influence their future lives, even though they don't understand the exact meaning of these works," Zhou says.

Tian Guiliang, the founder of the private boarding school, says he originally hoped to educate his two children in an old-fashioned way.

In March 2010, he established the Haikou Confucius School to cater to the needs of like-minded parents.

There are six teachers looking after three classes in the school - one for students under the age of seven, another for students between seven and 13, and the third specially for those who have great potential or talent. Tian says the old-fashioned education style focusing on recitation has a scientific basis because children under the age of 13 are in the golden stage for memorization.

"Through reciting classic works of literature, their potential will be explored while the moral principles will be planted deep in their minds," Tian says. "The children cannot fully understand what they recite now. But as they grow up, they will gradually comprehend."

Tian's theory is endorsed and supported by Zhou, who thinks that the modern education system only feeds children the simplest knowledge in the most complicated and arduous ways.

The parents of third-grader Chen Shihan took him out of a primary school in Guangdong Province three months ago and moved to Hainan.

"There used to be endless homework in my old school and sometimes I had to stay up until midnight, dozing the next day for lack of sleep," Chen says.

"My parents said I've made great progress in this school."

Private schools of this kind are not unusual in other cities around the country. In the mountainous suburbs of Beijing, there are about 10 private schools that provide a classical Chinese literary education.

These schools are generally expensive, targeting well-off middle- and upper-class families.


It costs 30,000 yuan (US$4,690) a year to enroll a student in the Confucius school in Hainan, which is about three times as much as an ordinary boarding school.

Many experts argue that replacing modern education with an imitation of an older style is too risky.

Yang Junlong, a psychologist in Hainan, says children in modern society need to acquire comprehensive and suitable knowledge.

"These students will face a knowledge gap if they are not taught subjects like English and mathematics, and they will have difficulty adapting themselves to an ordinary school to further their study," Yang says.

Yang's concern is dismissed by Tian and Zhou, both of whom believe that the students who receive an old-fashioned education can easily acquire other knowledge and soon catch up with or surpass their peers.

Zhong Dongmei, a professor of classical Chinese literature at Hainan University, says the popularity of old-style private schools should force educators to analyze the shortcomings of modern education and make improvements and adjustments.

But she emphasizes that replacing a modern primary school education with the recitation of ancient literary works is radical and unnecessary.

"An education in the works of classical literature is only part of an education. It should not be all," Zhong says.

Lin Mingju, a policy and regulations director at the Education Department of Hainan, says the Confucius school is registered as a training institution.

"Full-time education in the form of schooling is beyond its authorized business scope and is illegal," Lin says.

"Parents of school-age children have the obligation to send their children to legal schools to receive nine years of compulsory education in line with Chinese education laws," Lin says.


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