Children in scholars’ hats bow before a statue of Confucius as parents look to instill his values in their offspring.
With 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 an institution in the central city of Wuhan, about 30 students ages 2 to 6 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 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 the dad 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, and were the official ideology of imperial China.
At the schools, students start learning them by heart from a young age. “Between 2 and 6 years of age, the capacity for memorization is excellent. We plant the seeds of filial piety, respect for teachers and compassion,” the director of the Wuhan school, who is surnamed Shi, said.
Recreational activities are also traditional. Boys learn Chinese chess. Girls perform tea ceremonies in the classroom next door.
But after children turn 6, when state schooling begins, most parents enroll 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. The China Confucius Foundation had about 300 such institutions at the start of last year, compared with 223,700 ordinary kindergartens, and plans to open another 700.
Another Confucian organization, Tongxueguan, opened its first weekend school in 2006 and now has more than 120 such establishments across the country, with about 40,000 students.
“With economic prosperity, the Chinese feel the need for a return to their roots. They also need spiritual elevation,” its founder, Li Guangbin, told AFP.
Reciting texts and attending moral classes might not inspire creativity in children. But Li said it was more important for them to “understand what makes a man, righteousness, social interaction”.
Michael Schuman, the Beijing-based author of the book Confucius and the World he Created, said, the Chinese are “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 are the result of a lack of moral guidance.”