AT FIRST LOOK, The Huaguoshan Kindergarten in Zhuzhou, a city in the southern province of Hunan, looks a lot like any other nursery. Four brightly painted playrooms have buckets of construction bricks and soft, colorful mats. But on the upper floors, the classrooms are more spartan. Rice paper lanterns and a row of black tiles running along the top of the walls evoke ancient Chinese architecture. Children wear powder blue fleeces with the mandarin collars and frog ties of traditional jackets. Large portraits of Confucius hang on otherwise bare walls.
The kindergarten opened in September but already has a one-year waiting list. It taps into a growing national demand for guoxueor ânational studiesâ. It usually involves learning classical Chinese thought, texts, and morals, especially those associated with Confucius. The children of Huaguoshan learn to bow, greet each other politely in the street, and sit attentively with their backs straight and their hands carefully placed on their knees. In one room, they noisily dab leaves on muslin bags to learn an ancient dyeing technique. In others, they recite poems, practice calligraphy, perform tea ceremonies, and play Chinese chess. But, teachers say, mastery of skills is secondary to character building. A child learns to ârespect his rival and accept defeatâ in chess; in the tea room, to “enhance what is fragile like a porcelain cup”.
After decades of worshiping foreign trends, many people are now interested in these traditions. The TV shows include “Chinese Poetry Conference,” in which members of the audience are asked about classical stanzas. Young people wear traditional dresses in public. Education is at the heart of the trend. Frost & Sullivan, a data company, estimated that the children’s market guoxue education was worth 466 billion yuan ($ 73 billion) in 2018, almost double its value in 2014. Schools charge high fees. The organization that runs Huaguoshan, a nonprofit, also relies on donations. He promotes his educational philosophy on social media, with clips of his preschoolers reciting poems in traditional costume.
Revered for 2,500 years, Confucius was vilified during the 20th century. Guoxue fans are talking about a “hundred year gap”. In 1905, the failure of the Qing dynasty abolished the imperial civil service exams based on the sishu, the four Confucian texts. Modernizers saw beliefs as blocking progress.
The worst assaults took place after the Communists came to power in 1949. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao urged people to break down everything that was old. Bands of Red Guards invaded Qufu, the sage’s hometown, and blew up his grave. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s, nearly a decade after Mao’s death, that Confucius’ birthday could be marked again.
From top to bottom, from bottom to top
China’s return to tradition is partly motivated by a sense of cultural loss. Many Chinese are eager to rediscover their heritage, stripped by decades of communist rule. But it is also flourishing because it is now part of the official objectives. President Xi Jinping has done more than any other modern leader to elevate Confucian ideas. Shortly after coming to power in 2013, Xi visited Qufu, as the emperors had done before him. He called for ânew and positive rolesâ for Confucianism.
The old system of thought emphasizes respect for authority, veneration of ancestors, and deference to elders. Confucius taught that such values ââwere essential for achieving moral excellence as an individual. These honest citizens would form the basis for wider social harmony and political stability. The emperors used philosophy to instill obedience. Mr. Xi wants to do the same. Party leaders also endorse Confucianism because, unlike socialism, it is local in origin. He appeals to the young nationalists who acclaim the party’s call for wenhua zixinor cultural self-confidence.
Strictly speaking, all primary and secondary students should attend state-regulated schools, although most kindergartens are private. Guoxue content, like classical poems, has long been a part of the public high school curriculum. In 2014, more was added to the university entrance exam. The number of classical texts to be taught in schools increased from 14 to 72. In 2017, the government published guidelines for having a guoxue program in primary and secondary schools by 2025. In May, the Ministry of Education confirmed the plans, saying it was important for young people to “be trained in honest Chinese” with the patriotism “of serving the country “. State approved guoxue these courses “would strengthen a sense of belonging and pride in the Chinese nation.”
For many Chinese, the wise man’s musings have a different appeal. In neglected Confucian morality, educators see a set of values ââthat can be a solution to modern social ills, just as some in the West look to traditional Christian values. Jia Hong, who created Huaguoshan and two others guoxue in preschools, says, “These days we hear about so much bullying and dull behavior.” Many believe that the lack of good manners is to blame. Three quarters of the 200 children in Ms. Jia’s kindergartens attended regular kindergartens. She says parents notice how Confucian rituals have calmed their children and helped them focus.
Many young parents believe that the national obsession with exams has distracted them from other forms of edification, says Cao Shenggao of Shaanxi Normal University. Some consider the discipline instilled by guoxue, or zither mastery, say, as one more way to set their child apart in the educational rat race. Guoxue institutes often suggest that their after-school classes can help improve test scores.
But many others see guoxue kindergartens, which are legal, and guoxue primary and secondary schools, which operate in a legal gray area, as a way to protect children from relentless competition, at least early on. The scandals have prompted the government to crack down on the darker end of this education. In 2019, a boy died after teachers at his boarding school refused to take him to hospital, insisting on the use of traditional medicine. Last year the founder of a guoxue The camp that claimed to cure internet addiction was sentenced to three years in prison after students were found to be abused. The government also banned the teaching of “feudal dregs”, such as Confucian texts advocating female submission.
Educators like Ms. Jia support the crackdown. But many popular guoxue schools for older children are keen to remain self-sufficient if they can, turning down offers to work with local school boards. Tian Yu, an American-based Chinese education specialist, notes that schools are calling on certain parents to avoid political indoctrination of the state system. Guoxue educators quietly say that the rebirth of the forgotten culture must come from the bottom up. But in a contest to define what counts as tradition, the party will always want to have a say. â
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “The Return of Confucius”