A CELEBRATION OF rote learning may seem an unlikely event in these days of education reform, but that's what happened last weekend when more than 1,000 children from around the world gathered to recite the Chinese classics. Dressed in traditional Chinese clothes, children as young as three had no trouble with the 1,000-word The Great Learning, one of the many classics to be heard on the day. This was the first event of its kind in Hong Kong and was held at Wu Kai Sha Youth Village, Ma On Shan, organised by the International Classics Culture Association, the Hong Kong Council of Early Childhood Education and Services (CESES), and the website Hong Kong Education City. The children, aged between three and 13, spent a year preparing and memorising selected passages from the 'Four Books' - The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Golden Mean, The Analects of Confucius, and The Mencius. They also drilled in the 'Five Classics', comprising poetry, history, the famous I-ching, the Classic of Rites and the Spring and Autumn Annals. During a typical lesson teachers would brief their pupils on correct pronunciation and the meaning of the scripts, and occasionally ask them to act out dramas. Children also recited the words to the rhythm of a wooden percussion instrument, known as the Bok Bok Jai, which gives its name to this traditional practice in learning. The interest in the classics returns education to its ancient roots. The Four Books and Five Classics, or Si Shu Wu Jing in Chinese, were mandatory study for Confucian scholars with ambitions to become government officials. But today, recitations are not confined to Chinese scripts. Modern students also learn English poetry, including Shakespeare. San San Ching, director of CESES, which promotes good practice in pre-school education and has campaigned against meaningless rote-learning, is a surprising champion of the traditional practice. 'A certain amount of rote-learning may not be a bad thing,' Ms Ching said. 'What we need to do is strike a balance between memorisation, creative thinking and analytical skills, which are all complementary.' She said recent United States research in brain development showed children to be capable of absorbing difficult material that carried deep meaning even if they did not fully comprehend it. The practice enhanced memory skills, while the understanding came later. 'But we do find that students well-versed in the classics profess a refinement which is beyond their years. They are better behaved and more disciplined,' she said. The children taking part were far from bored or over-stretched by the challenge. 'We don't find it difficult reciting ancient Chinese classics. It is fun to chant with my friends,' said Ho Ka-po, a Primary Five Hong Kong student. Xu Jiazun, a seven-year-old from Taiwan, said: 'I like the passages because they teach me a lot of good things. Like the Book of Filial Piety, which teaches me a hundred ways to love my parents and show respect to the elderly.' The event was dreamed up by Wang Cai Gui, a linguistics professor at the Taichung Normal College, Taiwan. He started the classic reading movement when he founded the Children's Education in Chinese Classics project in 1991 to 'restore the social norms and ethics in Taiwan'. The National Cultural Association took up the project in 1997, building it into its 'Spiritual Reform' and transforming it into a semi-official curriculum. The project spread to Hong Kong and the mainland and attracted the interest of Chinese in the US, Europe and Southeast Asia. The number of children involved has now reached more than a million, in Hong Kong, the mainland and Taiwan. For Professor Wang, the classics are an important vehicle for consolidating the culture of the Chinese diaspora. According to a recent survey from CESES on adults' understanding of classics, more than half of the 442 interviewees said they barely understood the classics, and agreed that there should be more study of the texts in schools. 'Classics, which record our traditions and culture, are a source of inspiration. If we Chinese have forgotten who we are, we will become faceless in the international arcade and a follower of other cultures regardless of our knowledge and competence in science, academia and economy,' said Professor Wang, who is in Hong Kong for a month to promote the project. He said the memory skills involved were invaluable tools in the discipline of learning, especially language acquisition. 'Early drilling is one of the best things in Chinese culture to help cultivate genius. There have been so many great minds from Chinese and Jewish societies because they have a strong culture of reciting the classics. For the Chinese, it is Confucianism, for the Jews the Good Book,' Professor Wang said. 'The Cultural Revolution was really sad. It is strange how the government condemned their people who followed Confucianism as superstitious and conservative, but never criticised those in the west who believed in Jesus Christ. 'Taiwan, on the other hand, has been passively destroying Chinese culture by blindly following American culture and language policy, which ignores the importance of classic learning.' He explained why he believed exercises in memory were so important for the young. The ability to memorise peaked at the age of three, and gradually declined as children approached the critical age of 13, he said. By contrast, the ability to understand, express and analyse developed between the ages of three and 13. The age of 13 was seen as crucial, he said. By then children would have remembered as much as they ever could, providing a grounding for the development of more sophisticated thinking skills. 'Educators all over the world have, unfortunately, overlooked this simple fact because they cringe at the mention of rote-learning,' Professor Wang said. 'The current education system is dumbing down our children. Look at them: they readily pick up pop song lyrics and commercial slogans with ease, and these often meaningless messages stick in their minds. It is a waste of human intelligence.' Young children were capable of remembering a book of Confucian sayings, he said. 'But instead they are asked to recite simple sentences like 'Daddy loves you, Mummy loves you' which are all rubbish,' he said. 'The current language curriculum devotes too much time analysing simple materials. What is worse, students have to remember these standard formula and answers of analysis to pass the exams. That's why we've got university graduates who don't know how to write a thesis even in their mother-tongue language. 'If they were memorising original classical pieces instead, it would be a totally different picture.' He criticised the education reform taking place in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland as imbalanced and impractical. 'The current curriculum stresses creativity and critical thinking, but it has overlooked the fact that these skills develop more efficiently in later stages of childhood. 'It is unrealistic to expect children to create and analyse without providing them with good inspiration, which is most available in classics,' he said. Professor Wang added that the classics could play a cohesive role. 'They should be viewed as a means of solidifying Chinese culture around the world rather than just another learning exercise,' he said. Ms Ching said that although some drilling was necessary, it should not be over-emphasised to the point where it had a negative impact on learning. 'The best way is the middle way, as the Doctrine of the Golden Mean says,' she said. 'Chinese classics always encourage us to be balanced. I am sure the return of ancient Chinese classics learning will enrich children's learning experience.' For further information about the project, visit www.iccaclassics.org or www.chinese-classics.com.hk , e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org , or call 2771 5054.