ABOLISHED IN 1949 as a feudal legacy, the traditional private school, or si shu, has gradually resurfaced on the mainland as more parents turn to Chinese classics to give their children an alternative start in life. But none has been as controversial as Meng Mu Tang in the Shanghai suburb of Songjiang.
Named after the mother of the philosopher Mencius, the boarding school was established last year by parents who were dissatisfied with mainstream state education, most of them businesspeople from Fujian, Guangdong and Shanghai.
'We don't teach physics, geometry or natural science,' says Lu Liwei, a former English teacher who initially set up the school with her husband, Zhou Yingzhi, to give their five-year-old son a foundation in the classics.
Meng Mu Tang's curriculum is based mainly on the works of Confucius, Mencius and other ancient Chinese philosophers, she says, with some Shakespeare thrown in for an introduction to western cultural tradition. Six full-time teachers are on hand to guide its dozen pupils, aged between five and 12.
'Most of the children here haven't done well in the current exam-oriented education system, but that doesn't mean they are bad students,' says Lu. 'We offer a unique approach that shows them the insights of traditional Chinese education, and help them become successful individuals who can contribute to society.'
Eight-year-old Zhu Ji was sent to Meng Mu Tang for just that reason. His parents say the boy suffers from a hyperactive compulsive disorder, which made it difficult for him to keep up with the heavy schedule in conventional elementary schools.
'Teachers at my son's previous school told me he would never be successful, at least academically,' says the boy's father, Zhu Hong, a senior executive in a manufacturing company. 'I thought it was wrong for the school to judge my child, who is only eight. There are many qualities a human being can have besides being able to add up numbers.
'In the end, my son was pretty much abandoned by his teacher. He had no friends and was never happy, so I decided that it was best for him to come here, and learn how to become a good person before learning maths, and all that chemistry mumbo jumbo.'
With no homework or exams, Meng Mu Tang offers a relaxed programme. Zhou, a scientist who set up a business promoting Chinese classics, says the children spend most mornings reciting works such as Lun Yu, or The Analects. In the afternoons, they watch serials based on Chinese history such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms, to gain understanding of themes such as clashes of tradition. Regular periods are allotted for exercise, playing basketball and jogging.
'At this stage, heavy pressure will only hinder a child's development,' says Zhou. 'It's vital for them to gain a general understanding about life instead of focusing so much on academic subjects.'
Such alternative education isn't cheap - pupils must pay an annual fee of 30,000 yuan, considerably more than that at a state school. But Lu says most of that goes towards rental of the premises, 8,000 yuan per month.
'The fee is established on a 'utopian' basis', Zhou says. For instance, one mother works as the school's full-time cook to pay for her son's tuition.
Zhu Ji seems to have adapted well in his new school. 'I learned to recite the Yi Jing [or I Ching, an ancient system of philosophy] in only four months,' he says.
'My grandparents also told me that my manners have improved, I'm more polite. And they are surprised to hear me talking like a philosopher.'
However, Meng Mu Tang's high fees, narrow curriculum and emphasis on rote learning has drawn criticism from many quarters, including education officials. Last month, the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission declared the school an illegal institution and ordered it to close. Zhang Wen, a deputy director with the Ministry of Education, said the school contravened the newly revised education regulation that requires children to enrol in state-licensed schools from the age of six for nine years of compulsory schooling.
However, Meng Mu Tang has ignored the order, insisting that, as a privately run operation, it doesn't need a licence.
'We are not an academy, and therefore do not need a license to operate,' Lu says. 'This is a family home school, and all the parents have clearly stated that to government officials.'
Seven parents have since applied for a review of the order, arguing the commission is depriving children of their right to be home-schooled.
The clash over Meng Mu Tang has stirred widespread debate. Some scholars say parents should be allowed to choose an option most appropriate for their children, while others label Meng Mu Tang as an experiment that will put the pupils' future at risk.
That's not the experience of Zheng Yuanjie, the founder of popular children's magazine King of Fairy Tales. His children are home-schooled and doing well, he says. 'The tough job market dictates compulsory education will be the way for many decades. However, children should still have choices, especially at such an early stage.'
Zhou Rong, a Meng Mu Tang teacher, argues that compulsory education merely means parents have the responsibility to ensure their children receive an education. 'These children shouldn't be forced into a particular type of education,' she says.
But Ge Jianxiong, a historical geography professor at Fudan University, is concerned that the Confucian-style school won't give its pupils the basic knowledge to get on in modern society. 'It's great for these children to complement their education with Lun Yu or other classics,' he says. 'However, to study it full time is gambling on your children's future.'
Similar schools have thrived by positioning themselves as offering complementary education. Suzhou-based Ju Zhai, for instance, runs weekend classes in Chinese classics, painting, calligraphy and astrology.
'More people are enrolling, so we plan to open vacation classes,' says its operator, Xue Yanji. 'Our place is strictly complementary to the mainstream, so we don't have any trouble from the government.'
China West Point, in Hangzhou, is another school set up to cater to dissatisfied parents - those who feel conventional elementary schools weren't tough enough on their children.
'Many parents send their children here during the summer to acquire discipline and endurance,' says the school's operator, who declines to be named. 'Parents give prior approval for caning since they've had enough with their children's bad behaviour ... Of course, our canes are specially tailored to cause less pain. The fear of pain will give youngsters necessary structure in life.'
Perhaps the most established of the alternative schools is Pioneer, in Zhengzhou, Henan, which has promoted the study of Chinese classics since it opened in 1999.
'Chinese classic education does not conflict with current academic programmes,' says its principal, Ren Xiaolin. 'Chinese philosophy and wisdom have been recognised by many countries, so how can we abandon it so easily?'
But unlike Pioneer, a licensed institution, Meng Mu Tang faces an uncertain future. 'We don't plan to apply for a licence or sue the government,' Zhou says. 'We just want to keep our home school private, [and] see where it takes us.'
Gu Jun, a sociology professor at Shanghai University, says Meng Mu Tang is a response to the failings of state education. Chinese parents have always focused on seeking the best education for their children, he says, and 'the Meng Mu Tang syndrome represents a stage of desperation and anger towards the education system'.
But while state schools don't always meet individual needs, Gu says, they still offer the most scientifically proven methods. 'Parents should not be abandon it without serious consideration,' he says.