Field notes

China's young return to Confucian roots

On a snowy Saturday morning, the silence that hangs over Chengxian Guoxue Institute is broken by a chorus of children's voices.

"Huo yin shi, huo zuo zou, zhang zhe xian, you zhe hou," chant the 18 pupils huddled in one of the institute's classrooms, located on imperial school grounds dating back to the 13th century.

"So what does this mean?" teacher Wang Xiaorui asks the class of four- to seven-year-olds, who stare at her quizzically.

She continues: "It means when having a meal, let your elders take the food first. Let them walk ahead of you or sit down before you do."

Ms Wang is expounding on a verse from dizigui, a classical Confucian text which loosely translates as "standards for being a good pupil and child".

BACK TO THE PAST

In the decades after opening up, the West was seen as a role model and people were sending their children to piano or ballet class... But now there is greater interest in preserving Chinese tradition and values.

MS LI XIAOYA, founder of calligraphy school Hanxiang

It was written about 400 years ago during the Qing dynasty, just as much of the lesson aims to replicate a classroom setting from centuries past, with teachers and pupils dressed in traditional Chinese hanfu robes, sitting on straw cushions and writing on low tables.

Guoxue, or the learning of traditional Chinese culture and Confucianism, has seen a boom in recent years, fuelled by interest from parents and policymakers in a phenomenon the local media has dubbed "guoxue re" or guoxue fever.

Chengxian (Chinese for "becoming virtuous") is one of the capital's most well-known schools for guoxue.

"China has 5,000 years of history and people are going back to their roots," says Chengxian's director, Ms Ji Jiejing. "It's natural. It's a form of spiritual nourishment."

Affiliated to the government-run 14th-century Confucius Temple, Chengxian holds its classes in the adjoining Guozijian compound, which served as China's highest educational institution for three dynasties.

For parents like Ms Susie Hu, 36, sending her son to Chengxian's guoxue class is an opportunity for the four-year-old boy to be grounded in Chinese values and history. Pupils learn classical poetry, verses and calligraphy as well.

"As a country, we haven't been preserving our tradition and culture as well as the Japanese, Koreans or Taiwanese," she says. "It's something we should seek to improve."


Chengxian Guoxue Institute holds its classes in the Guozijian compound, which served as China's highest educational institution for three dynasties. It aims to replicate a classroom setting from centuries past, with pupils dressed in traditional Chinese hanfu robes, sitting on straw cushions and writing on low tables. ST PHOTO: TEO CHENG WEE

While there are no official figures, the popularity of guoxue schools, which teach traditional literature, art and music, among others, is reflected in the growing enrolment. There are at least a dozen such centres in Beijing today.

Ms Ji says that since Chengxian started classes in 2007, the number of enquiries from parents has been increasing by 10 to 20 per cent every year, although the institute can take only about 100 students. It charges 6,000 yuan (S$1,330) for a year of weekly classes.

Similarly, popular calligraphy school Hanxiang started in 2009 with 100 students in one location, but today has more than 4,000 students at its eight branches.

"When I opened my first centre in 2009, people asked why I was going into such a 'cold' sector," says Hanxiang founder Li Xiaoya. "But nowadays everyone says, 'Ah yes, that's an obvious field to be in'."

She says part of the interest comes from the greater sense of pride in being Chinese in the past decade, following China's rise on the global stage.


Ren Bowei, seven (left), and Ji Zhengpeng, eight, practising calligraphy at Hanxiang calligraphy school. Hanxiang, like many other guoxue centres, infuses its classes with Confucian teaching. ST PHOTO: TEO CHENG WEE

"In the decades after opening up, the West was seen as a role model and people were sending their children to piano or ballet class," she notes. "But now there is greater interest in preserving Chinese tradition and values."

While it teaches art and calligraphy, Hanxiang, like many other guoxue centres, infuses its classes with Confucian teaching.

In an hour-long class observed by The Straits Times, three young pupils are taught the proper way to sit and walk according to the dizigui. They then pick up their brushes to write the words from the passage they just learnt.

Retiree Zhou Hongxin, 61, feels her seven-year-old grandson Ren Bowei has turned from a child who "could not even sit for a minute" to an obedient and attentive one since joining Hanxiang two years ago.

"It's good that more people are going for guoxue classes. It'll be sad if Chinese tradition dies out," says Madam Zhou, whose family pays 9,000 yuan a year for Bowei's classes. "Chinese leaders always talk about building a hexie shehui (harmonious society). If everyone follows Confucian teaching, it will naturally be harmonious."

Indeed, China's renewed interest in guoxue, which experts say started from the grassroots in the last decade, is seeing an accelerated revival partly because of the government's own push.

Last year, the Ministry of Education issued a guideline that stipulated more lessons on traditional culture from primary school through to university. Chinese-language textbooks are thus being revised to increase the proportion of traditional culture from 30 to 50 per cent.

The government is also planning to open a US$250 million (S$353 million) national centre for traditional culture next to Beijing's Olympic Stadium, and is investing in a free online classical library.

But the official push is not merely targeted at preserving culture.

Although interest in guoxue began because of a demand for "values" among the public following controversies like food scandals, it has recently been promoted as part of the government's new ideology, notes Dr Sebastien Billioud, author of The Sage And The People: The Confucian Revival In China. This has fuelled the spike in interest.

"Originally, the authorities gave Confucianism some room to develop without driving it," he says. "They now tend to increasingly support Confucianism-inspired initiatives."

The emphasis on China's history and legacy is part of President Xi Jinping's "China Dream", or rejuvenation of a great Chinese nation, led by the Communist Party. Last year, he became the first communist leader to attend celebrations marking the birthday of Confucius.

Critics say his party is appropriating parts of China's rich history for its own purposes today, after driving a ruthless anti-tradition campaign during the Cultural Revolution.

Guoxue has also been panned because of ancient rites that certain schools teach.

In January, 800 students in Shanghai kowtowed to their parents in a school as a show of filial piety. It sparked an uproar, with many netizens saying China was regressing into feudal times.

From a broader perspective, there are also concerns about whether a rise in "cultural nationalism" might lead to insularity and assertive behaviour in the international arena.

"A result of a stronger cultural identity is that China may become more inward-looking and less open-minded about Western development models than it was, say, during the early days of reform and opening up," says Dr Guo Yingjie, an expert on China's cultural nationalism.

More discerning parents like Ms Hu say they are always casting a critical eye on guoxue classes, and will pull their children out if there is too much emphasis on showy rites.

For parent Qiu Dou, however, national issues are far from her mind when she sent her six-year-old daughter Yiling to learn guoxue.

"That day, she said she wanted to leave the last piece of meat at dinner for her father. It was something she learnt from dizigui," says Ms Qiu, 38. "As a parent, this makes the lessons worthwhile."


READ MORE ONLINE

See Teo Cheng Wee's blog on his visit to the Chengxian Guoxue Institute at http://str.sg/ZRkz

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2015, with the headline 'China's young return to Confucian roots '. Print Edition | Subscribe