Learning the Old Ways; Chinese disillusioned with both communism and capitalism are turning back to the ancient moralism of Confucius




The toddlers clad in satiny Chinese tunics don't seem to be taking the day's lesson to heart. As one 5-year-old girl recites from the Confucian classic, Discipline of Students, boys in the back row smack each other with their textbooks. Another girl in the front row breaks into tears. The speaker's mother confesses she's not even sure her daughter understands her lines, but she insists, "My daughter has become much more polite since she started attending classes here."
Yuan Shiqiu, an official at the National Studies School in the Andingmen district of Beijing, echoes the optimism. "They don't necessarily understand what they're reciting," he says of the preschoolers. "But gradually it will have an impact on their thinking."

That has always been the strategy behind the classic Confucian education: memorize moral precepts in the hope of improving one's character. In the early years of the 20th century, Chinese intellectuals blamed the system for stifling creative thought and weakening the country's ability to resist technologically works were castigated as medieval pap.

In their quest for something to believe in other than the party or money, however, Chinese have begun to rediscover the teachings of their most renowned moralist. Nationwide more than 2 million children are enrolled in programs similar to the one at Andingmen, where they learn Confucian works like the Three Character Classic and the Analects by heart. Several major universities have set up degree programs in Chinese traditional culture. Confucian temples abandoned for the last half century have been spruced up and now draw crowds of students, burning incense and praying for high marks in their entrance exams. "Even real-estate companies have called to ask us to set up schools in their complexes," says Yang Disheng, vice president of the China Confucius Society. "They thought this would help them sell apartments faster."

The appetite for a return to traditional values--and traditional means of instilling them--is not hard to explain. Chinese haven't believed in communism as an ideology for almost two decades. The so-called money worship of the 1980s has given way, particularly among parents, to an acknowledgment of the social costs of China's economic boom. "Money is not everything. You have to have a concept of family and of relations between people," says Yang.

Traditional scholars argue not only that Confucian precepts offer a means of re- establishing firm values in society, but that they are fundamental to the idea of being Chinese. As far back as the 19th century, scholars argued that Confucian values needed to be promoted as a counterbalance to the scientific knowledge being imported from the West. The question, then as now, says Don Wyatt, professor of history at Middlebury College, was, "How do we become modern while retaining our core values, because, after all, that's what has gotten us this far?"

Critics, however, might re-phrase the question: how do we become modern if we keep trying to retain our core values? Leaving aside those Chinese who believe that Confucian ideas instill only a feudal mind-set, most education experts in Asia now agree that the problem with the region's schools is too much rote memorization, not too little.

Turning to homespun teachings might be attractive--particularly to parents who suffered through the topsy-turvy moral vacuum of the Cultural Revolution. But many education professionals would argue that institutions like the Saint Tao Experimental School, which teach the same core curriculum as state schools but use memorization, are not capable of preparing young Chinese for the country's breathtaking modernizations.

Thus far the government has not taken a stand on the Confucian revival. But authorities obviously want to remain on the right side of a spontaneous and growing popular movement. Last year top leaders supported the opening of a $25 million research institute devoted to studies of Confucius in his birthplace of Qufu. Wyatt argues that the state has good reason to co-opt the movement: "China discovered long ago that the same values in Confucianism can be used to create docile and obedient citizens who are in the service of the state," he says. The country's youngest Confucianists may indeed be learning more than they realize.

© Paul J. Mooney 2013