Confucian teachings have sprung up across the country in response to growing demand for more traditional education.
Children in scholars hats bow before a statue of Confucius, the Chinese sage once reviled by Communist authorities but now enjoying a revival as parents look to instil his values in their offspring.
With central government backing, hundreds of private schools dedicated to Confucian teachings have sprung up across the country in response to growing demand for more traditional education.
At a new institution in the central city of Wuhan, about 30 students aged two to six chant: “Our respect to you, Master Confucius. Thank you for the kindness of your teaching and your compassion”.
Five-year-old Zhu Baichang admits he does not understand all the maxims he enthusiastically recites, but says: “It’s very interesting.”
Opened in 2015, the school has around 160 students whose parents fork out 7,000 yuan ($1,000) a term in the hope their children will absorb Confucius’ ideas on filial piety and integrity.
“We don’t understand everything when he recites the classics,” said Baichang’s father Zhu Minghui, but added that the principles that have “guided China for 2,000 years” were “seeping into his bones”.
The teachings of Confucius (551-479 BC) demand respect for tradition and elders to ensure harmony in a rigidly hierarchical society, and were the official ideology of imperial China.
At the schools students start learning them by heart from a young age.
“Between two and six years of age the capacity for memorisation is excellent” so “we plant the seeds of filial piety, respect for teachers and compassion,” the director of the Wuhan school, surnamed Shi.
By six, she says, her charges “have already finished reciting the great Confucius classics” — which contain several hundred thousand characters.
The school and the organisation that runs it are named after the Dizigui, a 17th century textbook based on Confucian teachings that promotes obedience to parents and the elderly, and which is part of the curriculum.
But after children turn six, when state schooling begins, most parents enrol them in official primary schools.
While Confucian schools are still very much on the fringe of China’s education system their popularity is growing among middle class parents wanting a traditional education for their children.
The China Confucius Foundation had about 300 such institutions at the start of last year, compared with 223,700 ordinary kindergartens, but had plans to open another 700. Mei Yuan, whose daughter attends a Tongxueguan school, says its teaching counters the downsides of modern life: “Today’s children are selfish, too individualistic, and society gives them a frivolous mind.”
Chinese people were “looking for something more in their lives”.
“They think that Chinese society has become very wealthy, but at the same time is missing something spiritual, and they feel a lot of the problems China is facing right now — corruption and environmental damage — are result of a lack of moral guidance.”
The sage “actively encourages debate” and “his disciples had to forge their own ideas”, which contradict the rote learning system used in Chinese schools, Schuman notes.
He also insisted on reciprocity of obligation, so that leaders owed their subjects good governance, and if they failed to deliver they could lose the “mandate of Heaven” — which would justify an uprising against them.