A new age for the sage

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 April, 2012, 12:00am


Although he has been revered through the centuries in China as a great sage and teacher, Confucius has also ruffled some feathers. Leading reformers in the late Qing dynasty, including Liang Qichao, labelled him the 'scurrilous thief of freedom of thought and expression'. Even today, many view Confucianism as a tool of autocracy that impedes free and independent learning.

David Yang Zuoren, the author of a new book, The Global Confucius, holds a different view. He says Confucianism in its pure form is about far more than filial piety, personal virtues, benevolence and justice. And rather than advocating a blind obedience to authority, it encourages challenges to authority and an innovative approach to education. It is also in line with what Hong Kong is now striving to achieve thousands of years later with reforms aimed at providing a more well-rounded education.

The sage's approach to teaching has implications for educators today and cannot be blamed for the lack of creativity among Chinese students, Yang says. The Six Arts taught in Confucian private school - rites, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy and mathematics - encompass a wide knowledge base.

'Confucianism also advocated catering to students' different capabilities, or education without discrimination,' says the 58-year-old director of the Shandong Confucian Business (Rushang) Institute. 'But many in the education field today do not know that. The original form of Confucianism is very progressive. What are considered by some as its negative aspects were actually introduced by autocratic rulers for their own interests.'

The root of the problem with today's education system, he says, is the high-stakes examination system and the difficult curriculum for students on the mainland and in Hong Kong and Taiwan. 'Examinations test one's grasp of knowledge, not creativity. They make people accumulate, rather than discover, knowledge.'

Yang's book, translated into English by veteran journalist and one-time Hong Kong resident Stacy Mosher, is based on a script he wrote for a mainland television series on the historic figure in the 1990s. The launch of the English version is a shot in the arm to the central government's drive to promote Confucianism on the world stage. Since 2004, the China National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language has set up more than 300 Confucius Institutes based at schools or universities in 88 countries, as a vehicle for promoting Chinese language and culture.

Yang believes there is still a place in today's world for an inspiring figure such as Confucius, born of noble blood in the Zhou dynasty in 551BC and given the name Kong Qiu. As he says in the book, Confucian influences can be found in traditional rites in some Asian countries, such as the tea ceremony in Japan. Liberal Western thinkers including Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Baron de Montesquieu were inspired by the Confucian concept of 'people taking precedence over the sovereign', through reading the works of missionaries in China.

Confucius was just three years old when his warrior father died, leaving him in the care of his mother, who died when he was 16. He eked out a living doing lowly jobs, but through relentless self-education, he emerged as a man well versed in classical texts. At the age of 30, he set up his private school to help students of various backgrounds learn. It was probably the world's first example of 'private education'. It was also a revolutionary move in a society where education was the preserve of the offspring of nobility, who normally attended state schools known as 'royal academies'.

'He gave instruction to as many as 3,000, most of whom came from impoverished backgrounds,' Yang says. One of them, Yan Hui, was so poor he did not even have a pillow to lay his head on. Confucius remained in the education field for more than 20 years before becoming an official in the state of Lu at the age of 50.

Despite his love of ancient educational methods, Yang believes that it is important to keep in place the national college entrance examination on the mainland as a fair means of allocating university places. 'There is no other choice,' he says. 'Without the exam, those with connections, official ranks or money will be at an advantage. That would be unfair to many.'

But reform can be undertaken by making the curriculum less difficult, he says. 'Even if you make all subjects easier to study, you can still sort out the brightest students from the rest of the student population. Why do students need to learn advanced mathematical concepts?

'People have the wrong idea that scientific achievement can be made through the teaching of difficult concepts. In fact, scientific achievement comes about through not just knowledge accumulation but also the nurturing of creativity.'

Key to that is the provision of personal space for students - something that is sadly missing from the packed curriculum. 'It's important for students to have the space to explore their interests and other extra-curricular activities, whether it be music, literature or art,' he says, calling the education system in China a 'failure'.

In the book, Yang recounts the different stages of Confucianism's development, from it being elevated to cult status in the Tang dynasty (AD618-907), being twisted by authoritarian leaders such as Qin Shihuang to serve their political ends, to it coming under attack in the late Qing and early Republic of China period, and the People's Republic under Mao Zedong. Peking University professor Chen Duxiu, co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party, advocated 'destroying all of China's existing Confucian temples' in a rejection of all remnants of feudal culture.

Mao labelled Confucius the representative figure of feudalism, one that deserved to be eliminated in the modern era.

'In the course of nearly 2,000 years, not a single feudal autocratic emperor genuinely adhered to Confucianism; all were outwardly Confucian but inwardly legalist,' says Yang, referring to an ancient school of thought that emphasised enforcement of rules and law.

He says his own school days were stress-free. When he was a primary student in Beijing in the 1960s - just before the onset of the Cultural Revolution - schooling lasted only half a day. He spent afternoons with classmates, doing what he enjoyed, such as reading and writing. He began writing poetry in his late teens. 'My childhood was very happy - no pain,' he recalls.

In the fourth year of primary school, he contributed an article to a newspaper that fuelled his passion for literature. At Qufu Normal University, where he was a history major, he switched to Confucian thought for his graduate studies.

For the past decade, Yang has written speeches read at annual rites marking the birthday of Confucius in his hometown of Qufu, Shandong. He is also an advocate of Chinese medicine and what he calls a speedy method of learning Chinese characters passed down to him by his father. It facilitates learning by focusing on the shape, sound and radical of a character. 'People can learn 5,000 characters in three years,' he says.

The subject closest to Yang's heart, however, is Confucius, whom he calls a forerunner of all-round education.

'Confucius was not a strict teacher,' he says. 'He went swimming with his students, chatted casually with them about their ideals, and encouraged the development of each one by respecting their strengths and weaknesses.'