A new age for the sage
Standing ramrod straight during assembly, pupils at Catiline Kindergarten in Whampoa recite verses from the Three Character Classic, the 13th century children's guide attributed to Confucian scholar Wang Yinglin. It's par for the course at Catiline, where Confucius' teachings are fundamental to its approach to education.
Executive officer Tsui Mei-ling, whose five-year-old daughter Yu-yan attends Catiline, reckons the teachings of the ancient Chinese philosopher provide an antidote to the pervasive culture of materialism and individual wants that Hong Kong children are exposed to every day.
'All the online entertainment and popular culture have watered down the traditional Chinese virtues I admire,' she says. 'Children get everything so easily, they don't learn to be thankful for what they have. Veneration towards elders is also disappearing. I don't want my child to become a brat so typical among local kids now.'
Tsui has noticed a remarkable change in Yu-yan since joining Catiline. There are fewer temper tantrums, and she is better behaved.
'Before, she was quite spoilt and gave up easily in the face of difficulties,' she says. 'Now, when I ask her to do something, she responds quickly, reciting the precept against tardy replies to parents' requests. When dancing, she stretches herself to the hilt. She grits her teeth and reminds herself about the verses of perseverance and living up to one's potential.'
Once derided as feudal and draconian, the teachings of Confucius are not only gaining interest on the mainland, but are also enjoying a revival in Hong Kong, where the classic texts are being incorporated into the curriculum. This year, seven kindergartens under the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, as well as 11 primary schools with Buddhist and Taoist affiliations introduced classics such as the Qing dynasty text Dizi Gui (Standards for Being a Good Pupil and Child) and The Doctrine of the Mean.
At Catiline, Confucian teachings are a way of life for students and teachers. Sayings from Dizi Gui and the Three-Character Classic are plastered on walls.
Textbooks include The Great Learning, which points the way to enlightenment and moral uplift. School administrators devote every Thursday afternoon to studying The Analects.
'We have activities that show how the virtues are applied in daily life,' says Catiline director Wun Kam-hoi. 'For example, when teaching about gratitude, there will be a visit to a farm in Fanling to let children learn about farm labour and why we should be grateful to nature and the people involved in food production. During birthday parties, children learn to express thanks to their parents instead of focusing on the birthday boy.'
Wun, who is also chairman of the International Classics Culture Association, bought the kindergarten in 2004 with a view to reconnecting youngsters with Confucian thinking. He clearly found plenty of demand, as the nursery has since expanded to five branches and now caters to 1,300 pupils.
Texts such as The Thousand Character Classic, which uses archaic expressions and obscure metaphors, might seem old-fashioned, but Wun insists they remain relevant.
'Human nature and virtues are immutable,' he says. 'People were racked by greed, fear and ignorance 2,500 years ago, but they always sought self-advancement. The same foibles and aspirations remain today. Confucius exhorted people to change and adapt to their times.'
Even the six arts that the ideal Confucian gentleman should seek mastery of - ritual, music, archery, charioteering, writing and arithmetic - have their modern equivalents. For instance, charioteering referred to transport by horse or ox-drawn carts, but in the present context, it would refere to computers, Wun says. Similarly, there's a modern equivalent to archery. 'Who would ride an ox-drawn cart and shoot arrows today? The two arts mean the mastery of computers and physical education these days.'
At Rightmind Kindergarten, a nursery run by the KinderU group in Ap Lei Chau, Dizi Gui serves as a guide to life for parents, too. KinderU founder Thomas Ho Kwong-hung designed a series of workshops to teach them how to incorporate Confucian thought into child-raising, and now parents use Dizi Gui verses in their daily conversations with children.
Financial planner Debbie Lee Mei-yan, who attended many of Ho's workshops, says she knows the whole texts by heart and adheres to their directives.
'I find the texts hugely useful, especially for busy families like ours. The verses are concise and applicable to all aspects of daily life. When my daughter does something wrong, I can cite the relevant verse without having to explain further. As she has internalised the lessons in class, she understands my point instantly. For example, when she refused to leave a birthday party late at night, even though she goes to bed at 8pm, I cited the verse about the importance of sticking to one's schedule without disruptions.'
Ho says children should learn how to be decent individuals before they begin their quests for knowledge. 'Dizi Gui helps children build up a set of moral values that can benefit them for life. The text should be learnt by all parents, who can then serve as role models.'
At ISF Academy in Pokfulam, teachers help Confucian teachings come alive by associating them with festivals, games and activities. For instance, they adopt filial piety as a theme during Chung Yeung festival to teach the importance of protecting and venerating elders, says Shan Ning, head of the academy's primary section. With lessons in English and other foreign languages eclipsing Chinese education in most of the city's international schools, ISF's strong emphasis on Putonghua and Chinese culture sets it apart. Confucian texts are also recited at morning assemblies, but it isn't simply rote learning.
Investment manager Fred Chen Mingde - whose two children, Zuyi and Junrui, attend ISF - says they enjoy learning the classics. 'During recitations, they carry out physical movements to the rhythm of the verses. It's not stuffy classroom learning,' he says. 'Extracurricular activities such as wushu classes also help create an atmosphere steeped in Chinese culture.'
Wun, of Catiline, insists that the old language used in the classics is not a barrier. 'Children learn by imitation. When they hear something, they just pick it up by osmosis without understanding [the logic or meaning behind it]. If they aren't taught the classics, they will pick up advertising jingles and pop songs that don't do much for their personal development,' he says.
'Passages in The Thousand Character Classic relating to astronomy or seasonal changes might be abstract to children. But as they grow up, they will grasp the meaning. The classics they recite as children will stay with them for life.'
Levi Gao, director of Chinese language and culture at ISF, acknowleges the classics can be intimidating to people who see them as something from the distant past. 'However, tradition is not a rigid past, but a living stream. Confucian teachings about learning, friendship and how to treat the elderly are always relevant,' he says.
'San Zi Jing [Three Character Classic] is a good starting point. It helps young students recognise [Chinese] characters. Every word, with its distinct meaning, is read out with rhyme and rhythm.'
In the English Schools Foundation network, fewer than 2,000 of its 12,841 students speak Chinese. Even so, the ESF adviser Wang Xiaoping says Confucian culture still has a prominent place in the system. Teachers get around the barrier to understanding the ancient text by having students study the classics in vernacular Chinese, or even English. Chinese is studied as a compulsory subject until Year Six.
'We have large number of students who speak some sort of Chinese, but whose literacy is very low,' Wang says. 'It's a waste of time for those students to tackle Chinese classics. Instead of drowning them in original works, we expose them to Confucian teachings through inquiry and various activities.'
Students have put on a play in English about Confucian thought. In it, Kung Jung, a 20th generation descendant of Confucius, chooses the smallest pear for himself while reserving the best ones for elders to illustrate the Confucian order of fraternity or family.
'Most international schools' philosophy is based on Western liberal education, which does not acknowledge things like the filial piety of Chinese culture. We make a big effort to combine Western and Eastern cultures. That's what Hong Kong is all about,' Wang says.
Eua Martinez has enrolled her three children in Rightmind Kindergarten. Although from Spain, she wants to nurture traditional Chinese virtues in them while strengthening their roots.
'Most values taught by Confucius are the same as those taught in Spain,' she says. 'But some virtues, like humility, are more prominent in Chinese culture. I don't want my children to think they are the best. There's always somebody who is better than you. If they think they are the best, they might treat people with arrogance.