Believer in classics for the young

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am


In 2003, Meng Danmei started an old-fashioned private school that focused on reading and studying classic works of literature. Established in Shenzhen, the school - called a sishu - is Meng's answer to what she and other like-minded people believe is a problem with education on the mainland. She has faced plenty of adversity in her efforts, but remains steadfast and ambitious in promoting the classics, especially among schoolchildren.

What do children read at the sishu?

They read only classics, including from both Chinese and Western authors. The Chinese syllabus covers the works of Confucianism and Taoism, and poems from the Tang dynasty (618-907). Works in English include the Bible and the writings of Socrates, Plato and William Shakespeare.

Is it dull for the children to study so many classics?

The idea of dullness is the opinion of adults who have not read the books. When classics are read at an early age, there is no question of them being boring. Learning a language or culture is done through exposure to the subject, not an attempt to understand them. Children like things they are familiar with. We don't allow them to watch cartoons or television. Without this contrast, they think this is a good life.

How do you respond to criticism that you don't follow the principle of gradual learning, from the easier classics to the more difficult ones?

Behind the argument of gradual learning is a question of whether children understand the books they read, which is what conventional teaching is based on. We've dropped that idea and let them read things they don't understand, but which will be extremely useful their whole lives. They can understand and practise the teachings when they are in their 30s and 40s.

Do the children ask what the classics are about, or what they mean?

If they ask, teachers tell them they will understand when they grow up. Now is the time for them to simply take it all in. We don't expect them to understand anything before age 13.

What if the writings, such as in the Bible or the works of Confucianism and Taoism, contradict one another?

These classics talk about the same truth; they just approach it differently. Truth does not contradict itself.

Wouldn't conventional teaching methods, such as telling stories or playing games, be more acceptable to the children?

Who tells you that children love listening to stories? I can tell you that at this school, they all like reading classics. The value in that is greater than listening to stories, so we don't emphasise the latter. As for games, they are inventions by adults that are forced on children. The natural world can be their playground. Our pupils have two hours of outdoor activities a day, and listen to classical music all the time, from both the East and the West. We also surround them with copies of famous paintings and calligraphy.

What is the biggest problem with conventional schooling?

It places too much emphasis on knowledge, but has almost no courses on the development of life values. Giving a child a fundamental education without exposing him to the classics is killing his ability to achieve wisdom through education.

What are the benefits of the classics?

Many parents say they don't want their children to be extremely knowledgeable, so long as they are happy. But how can people be happy without great wisdom? You would be upset the moment others criticise you. Not all children who read classics will become great, but those who don't, absolutely cannot become great people.

How are pupils who study the classics different from those who don't?

The longer they learn the classics, the more differences they exhibit. They are pure and bright, without having distracting thoughts.

Why does the sishu sacrifice subjects such as science and maths?

We don't start teaching science or mathematics at an early age. When the children reach the age of 12, or the equivalent of sixth grade, and have the ability to understand and think for themselves, they can teach themselves maths from grades 1 to 6. It is a very natural process. It is a misconception that reading the classics is done simply to learn Chinese. The children learn a wide range of abilities. They can teach themselves any subject after reading so many classics. After class, our pupils read all-encompassing encyclopaedias by themselves.

Are the teachers experts on the texts?

They are people who are enthusiastic about life and moved by Chinese culture. Some are parents of the pupils, others were waitresses at a restaurant I used to run, and the headmaster is my former restaurant manager. They do not need to have already read the classics. The only requirement is that they know pinyin, so they can lead the class in reading. Teachers and pupils learn together. People have been reading classics for more than 2,000 years. In fact, many scholars graduated from the sishu. We don't want to expose our children to the current state of education on the mainland.

Why are many sishu boarding schools?

This avoids outside influence from society or families. Our pupils don't eat snacks. We try our best to create a childhood without additives or a superficial culture. We are trying to achieve a balance between family bonding and the avoidance of societal contamination. We'd like to set up a training centre where parents can stay with their children during the holidays, rather than sending our pupils back into society.

How did you end up opening a sishu?

I was a soldier performing in an arts troupe, and I used to be in the restaurant business. While in my 20s, I earned a lot of money. In 2001, a speech about classics and education by Professor Wang Caigui (a Taiwanese scholar who promotes the reading of classics among mainland children) started me on reading classics with my daughter, who was three. I decided then not to send her to regular schools. The sishu depends on donations. The fees are barely enough to cover normal expenses.

Have you run into any problems? What motivates you to carry on?

The school has received nine closure notices from government officials. I told them that we had powerful supporters. Confucius, Mencius and the nation's leaders back what we're doing. They cherish and promote harmony, wisdom and justice - just what the classics advocate.

How can the sishu fit into the mainland education system?

We expect them to coexist as a type of private school, with our own textbooks and characteristics.