Classically framed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 May, 2012, 12:00am


Teachers at Luming School in eastern Shenzhen start every class with the same instruction: 'Children, read after me.'

The pupils open their textbooks - always one of the nine authoritative works of Confucianism - and begin carefully reciting the ancient words. Line after line, the teacher leads the class in a drone of 2,500-year-old verse, assisted by two other teachers to ensure the children's sounds are consistent and non-stop.

The process continues for six hours a day to best ensure the pupils absorb each of the Four Books and Five Classics in its entirety. When one work is finished, the teacher moves on to the next or simply begins the same one again. One book may be read as many as 600 times.

Pupils do not fear their exams. There are none.

This is a sishu, an old-style private school occupying a converted six-storey farm residence in the shadow of Wutong Mountain. The boarding school is one of about a dozen full-time sishu that have opened in the surrounding area in recent years as a small but passionate group of parents and educators seek a return to traditional teaching methods and the values they are thought to instil.

For generations, rote memorisation of ancient texts was a central part of the education system in China. The practice fell out of favour after the old examination system for imperial officials was abolished in 1905. Once the Communist Party took power in 1949, the remaining sishu were reformed and absorbed into the public school system.

The resurgence of the old-style schools comes against the backdrop of renewed interest in traditional Chinese culture, especially as it existed before foreign influence and revolutions changed the shape of the country's institutions. The return has been driven in part by central government leaders who have advocated Confucian ideals to reverse a perceived moral decline blamed for numerous social ills.

The sishus similarly seek to cultivate wise adults of noble character. But the intense focus on the classical Chinese canon, including the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean and the Book of Songs, comes at the expense of nearly every other subject. Mathematics and the sciences are not taught at all.

Such methods have naturally aroused controversy in a country where many reform advocates feel the education system lacks a respect for pupils' individualism and fails to foster enough free-thinking people.

'Repetitive memorisation cultivates obedient people without the ability to think independently,' said Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of 21st Century Education Research Institute, an education think tank.

Xiong said such schools belonged under the education authorities and argued it was 'irresponsible' to recruit more children into the schools because their effectiveness had not been fully studied.

But Meng Danmei, the founder of Luming School, dismisses such criticism. She argues that children who read the great works of Chinese philosophy are better equipped to learn other subjects later on.

'They can teach themselves any subjects easily after they take so many classics into their hearts,' Meng said. 'They memorise all the classics and then spend the rest of their lives understanding and practicing the truth.'

Mencius' Mother's School in Shanghai, which opened in 2002, is widely believed to be the first full-time sishu to open as part of the latest revival. Numerous similar schools have since been founded in major cities, such as Beijing, Guangzhou and Chengdu .

Mainland education experts say it is impossible to know how many sishus have sprung up around the country, as few, if any, have registered with the education authorities. One website promoting sishu education lists more than 100 such schools. Around the time Mencius' Mother's School was opening in Shanghai, painter Zhang Zhonghe, who was struggling to find a place to give his son a traditional education, moved from Shenzhen's Dafen area to Wutong and started to read the classics to his son. Several of Zhang's friends took their children to him to learn. Another friend decided to quit his teaching job and founded the Wutong School among the area's farmhouses and artists' studios.

Meng similarly became interested in the old teaching methods after her daughter was born in 1999, and she opened Luming School two years later. The school now has about 30 teachers and more than 100 pupils, with those older than 10 studying at a separate branch in Heyuan , also in Guangdong.

'I prefer sishu to normal schools,' said Chen Yichang, 15, who has been at the school for nearly four years. 'My teachers in the primary school only looked at students' scores. Here everyone reads at his or her own pace because each student's ability to memorise varies.'

But getting young children to absorb great works of literature through repetition is no easy task.

On one recent afternoon, a class of 15 pupils, aged four to six, appeared bored and distracted as their teacher sat among them at a table, leading them through a reading of Mencius. One leaned on his desk. Another stared blankly at his book. Most appeared sleepy and struggled to keep the rhythm.

Interestingly, the teachers did not correct those who failed to keep up and ignored one boy who left his seat to wander around the back of the room. One boy suddenly stood up and began to shout out the ancient words with his fists clenched tightly. The other pupils soon joined in, shouting together with him.

In another class of children aged between two and four, two boys fell asleep in the teacher's arms. One boy cried over the reading.

The classics follow the children everywhere they go. Outside the classrooms, recordings of Confucian works are broadcast from speakers installed in the stairways. They hear English readings, too, taken from The Bible and Shakespeare's plays, even though few know the language. In one room, children younger than seven could be seen listening repeatedly to selections from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

'Usually they read a classic work of 20,000 characters 300 times in one month,' Meng said. 'About one-third [of the pupils] can recite the entire work and one-third can recite it after being reminded. The remaining third are also very familiar with the works.'

Conditions are spartan. The pupil's bedrooms sit just outside the classrooms. Two or three children share a queen-sized bed. Pupils are not allowed to bring in any electronics, including mobile phones, or other forms of entertainment that might distract them from their studies.

The rigorous course takes a toll on the pupils, perhaps explaining a warning one teacher gave to a reporter before observing a class of students aged between seven and 10.

'You are not allowed to ask some questions, such as whether they miss their parents or whether they feel happy here,' the teacher said, 'because these question will arouse negative emotions.'

But when asked whether they enjoyed reading and reciting the ancient works, the children were hardly enthusiastic. Several shook their heads. Two said 'yes'. Another boy, after a long stare and several seconds of silence, said: ' I don't know.'

Zhong Jinjin, a teacher, cautioned against drawing any conclusions from the responses, explaining that the concept of dullness was one instilled in them by adults. They do as their teachers instruct.

'They don't know whether something makes them happy or not,' Zhong said.

Many older pupils, however, say they have grown to enjoy the classics.

He Yu said the more he read, the better he grasped the meaning of the texts. The 17-year-old said he read encyclopedias and books on mathematics provided by the school in his spare time.

Deng Huijie, 20, was a student at Luming for two years before she became a teacher there. Deng said the school fulfilled her yearnings for a place that had no homework, was less concerned about material pursuits, and focused on the classics. She felt purified and that her spirit was uplifted.

'Both my two elder sisters came here to be teachers and my younger brother and I came here to become students,' she said. 'My father supported our decisions because our grandfather was educated in a sishu.'

And that is what many parents who send their children to sishu say they want the most. Many find the modern Chinese educational system lacking in philosophical grounding and are concerned about what they see as a decline in people's ethics.

'If a person does not have moral character, it is useless to learn any knowledge,' said one father who planned to send his three-year-old daughter to Luming.

Zhao Longhong, the mother of a seven-year-old girl from Huizhou , said she was relieved to know schools like Luming existed. 'I will let her read classics at least until she is at least 10 years old,' Zhao said.

Meng has enrolled both of her two children, ages three and 13, at Luming.

'Our students may not all become great people,' she said, 'but the great people of China absolutely come from among them.'

These days, Meng is busy travelling across China to make speeches to teachers extolling the virtues of traditional education.

Although full-time sishu have a growing number of followers, more parents are inclined to treat the reading of classics as complementing rather than replacing conventional schooling. Thus, weekend sishu have become popular in big cities.

Still, many question the value of having children do rote memorisation for the sake of filling young minds with the teachings of ancient philosophers, much of it steeped in the feudal culture of China's past.

Xu Yong , a professor of education at Beijing Normal University, who has been researching traditional Chinese learning, said reading the classics was valuable but there were fundamental drawbacks in the full-time sishu as they were now structured. They lacked a coherent progression of learning and failed to excite children's own interests, he said.

'Some of the ancient teachings are not eternal and are not suitable for current society,' Xu said, suggesting that pupils study the easier portions of the classics after they finish the official curriculum set by the Ministry of Education.

Meng just smiled when asked about the contention that some of the ancient teachings might not be good for mainland children in the 21st century.

'They are truth,' she said. 'Truth is eternal.'


The number of times that pupils might read a single 20,000 character classic in a single month at a sishu school