The Confucius connection

Updated: 2011-01-28 12:29

By Xiao Xiangyi (China Daily European Weekly)

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 The Confucius connection

Students learn the unique tea ceremony at a classroom in Tongxueguan, Wuhan, capital of Central China's Hubei province. Provided to China Daily

Ancient sage's wisdom helps Chinese students prepare for a more modern, global future

Bundled in gray robes and seated on round red cushions, dozens of children in a Wuhan classroom are chanting the old Confucian analect, "By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart" on a typically cold Saturday morning.

Wafts of music emanate from ancient Chinese zithers in the next classroom as students learn the ancient and unique tea ceremony from teachers. Students are also seen practicing calligraphy on rice paper or playing blindfold chess in groups.

It was as if time has stood still many centuries ago. The rumble of traffic and honking of horns from the nearby streets, however, puts things in a more modern perspective.

Children, mostly three to six years old, are flocking to schools on weekends to learn the teachings of the ancient sage Confucius and other interesting facets of traditional Chinese culture.

Nothing dominates the learning experience here like Confucius. Students bow to portraits of "Grandpa Confucius" on the walls before classes and regard him as the "teacher of all teachers."

In China, "old is gold" is best exemplified by the growing popularity of Confucian schools. The schools aim to train students to delve into the rich legacy of the past for solutions to modern day problems.

Tongxueguan, in Wuhan, capital of Central China's Hubei province is considered to the pioneer of the Confucian revival in classrooms. Till date, nearly 20,000 students have attended classes in more than 20 branches of the school in cities as diverse as Shenzhen, Nanning, Kunming and Dalian.

"We try to combine traditional Chinese culture and the best Western educational practices in our curriculum," says Li Guangbin, headmaster of Tongxueguan.

"Education is the best way to transmit the greatness of ancient Chinese culture to the present generation. It also instills in students the importance of certain core values in life," Li says.

"Role-playing games, for example, train students in behavior and communication. Students are also given virtue assignments, like helping parents in daily household chores, to do at home.

"The art of tea making is a slow and quiet process, which helps improve mental strength. During the process one need to be patient and have utmost concentration," Li says when asked why four-year-olds are taught the entire process of tea making. "There is no extreme happiness or sorrow. It's gentle and peacefully deep."

It is this belief that the teachers of Tongxueguan hope to pass on to their students. "Be smart and willing to learn. Be happy and polite. Be brave and benevolent," is the motto of the school.

According to Li, the current educational system lacks in moral and spiritual enlightenment for children. "Morality is more of a habit than a perception for a child."

In Tongxueguan, children aged from three to six get trained in an integrated course that includes Chinese poetry and the four arts of the Chinese scholar-music, chess, calligraphy, and painting. Older children start off with a course on classical Chinese.

Despite the advantage of having multimedia teaching equipment, the Confucian schools still use the oral recitation technique. Children read aloud the classic texts until they are able to recite them from memory.

"It is a pity if children are able to understand only modern Chinese. The ignorance of classical Chinese leads to an indifference of Chinese history and thousands of years of civilization," says Li.

"Classical Chinese loses its rich sheen when translated into the modern language. Children's interest for classical Chinese is just like English and is often best imbibed at an early age," he says.

"Children should read the best texts at the best age. It is the Chinese way of learning. They absorb the historical essence and classics when they are young. It's okay that they don't understand it for the time being, but they certainly will digest the content in their minds when they grow up and help shape life experiences," says Zhao Boyi, a teacher at Zaiqianxuetang, a Confucian school in Beijing.

"The parents of our students are well-educated. Many are highly paid overseas returnees, entrepreneurs, officials and intellectuals. They are not looking for quick fixes, nor do they worship Western culture blindly. Instead, they have a good understanding and yen for traditional Chinese culture," says Li.

It is not an easy task to be a teacher at the Confucian school. Proficiency in Chinese language, a good background in children's education, psychology, capability and sound moral background are some of the desired requirements.

"In China the family is everything. Children are influenced by the behavior of their parents. So we have classes for parents too, which run in conjunction with the courses for the children."

"Modern parents often feel irritated, stressed and flustered. And these are exactly what traditional Chinese culture heals. It makes parents more assured and capable of dealing with the problems.

"There is no dominant religion in China, hence the people feel the need to be bound by a spiritual force, called Li and Yi (rituals and righteousness) in traditional Chinese culture," says Zhao.

But not everything in these schools is run on the age-old lines. Entry to the schools is no longer the prerogative of the male students/teachers. Female students and teachers are present in equal strength in modern day Confucian schools.

"Gender discrimination is not a tenet of Confucianism. Rather it is the limitation of the ancient times," says Zhao.

"I can now sense the subtlety and delicacy of Chinese classics. What the ancient sages said are indeed inspiring," says He Xiyuan, who studies at Zaiqianxuetang and is now able to recite many Chinese classics from memory.

"I study at school for grades, but study here for myself," says Shen Lijun, a winter-holiday course student at Zaiqianxuetang.

"Children who are acquainted with traditional culture can lead a life that is more elegant and healthier than their parents. Lifestyles are highly relevant to one's life quality and sense of joy," says Li.

"A good understanding of traditional Chinese culture will definitely become their unique competitiveness when they grow up."

"The 'Standards for Students' helps improve children's implementation capacity, which is exactly the weakness of the younger generation, " says Wang Jing, the mother of a seven-year-old student. Wang says she was surprised that her son was able to shed the habit of procrastination after he started attending the classes.

"Wisdom buried in traditional Chinese culture makes us light-hearted, generous and tolerant. It will give students self-balancing and self-healing powers," she says.

"Morality comes first at any time for a child's education," says Shan Qi, a high school teacher and the mother of a six-year-old girl.

"The saddest thing is that even teachers like us find what we teach is meaningless in the examination-oriented educational system," says Shan.

"It's good to see the rehabilitation of traditional Chinese culture, which is much better preserved in Taiwan, Hong Kong and even Singapore than the Chinese mainland," says Cui Libin, professor at the College of Chinese language and Culture in Beijing Normal University.

China's long history of civilization, socio-economic development have also attract more foreign students.

By the end of 2009, some 282 Confucius Institutes and 272 Confucius classrooms had been established in 88 countries. They were educating about 260,000 students in 2009, an increase of 130,000 over 2008, on China's culture and language, according to the Ministry of Education.


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