HE IS PERHAPS THE world's most famous teacher and certainly one of the longest remembered. Confucius created a school of philosophy that would go on to dominate much of Chinese thought, politics and culture until the modern era. The Spring and Autumn era (770-476BC) philosopher may have just celebrated his 2,556th birthday but the influence of his teachings can still be felt in the local education system today. Tong Yan-kai, president of the Confucian Academy - a school sponsoring body and academic association that researches Confucian thought - believes the teachings still have a role to play in today's education. 'I began studying Confucius when I was four or five years old,' Dr Tong said. 'I feel that learning about Confucius as a child helped me understand how to be a good person, not to tell lies, not to take advantage of other people. It was very meaningful and helped me to develop my intellect.' Dr Tong said the teachings of Confucian thought began early in the academy's two aided primary schools and continued in its secondary school. The process began with simple textbooks explaining the concepts at the primary level, gradually progressing to the original classical Chinese texts. 'Christianity has the Bible. Buddhism has its Sutras. Islam has the Koran,' Dr Tong said. 'In Confucianism, we also have our own sacred canon, the Four Books and Five Classics.' The Five Classics are the I Ching (Book of Changes), the Classic of Poetry, the Book of Rites, the Classic of History and the Spring and Autumn Annals. The Four Books, meanwhile, include the Analects, the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean and Mencius. These books have formed the basis of classical Confucian education since the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD). Dr Tong felt it was necessary for Chinese students to study this canon in secondary school. If they did not, the country would lose touch with its heritage. 'It is a question of culture and religion.' But students at a Tai Po secondary school run by the Confucian Academy were divided over just how relevant and applicable the teachings were today. 'A lot of it is too traditional, and a lot of it is out of date,' said Thomas Cheung Sai-kit, 17, a Form Six student at Confucian Ho Kwok Pui Chun College. 'On matters like sexual equality, then a portion of Confucian teachings really don't have any bearing on today's society.' Judy Lau Po-chu, 17, said: 'I would agree that a certain amount of Confucianism is wrong but most of it is good for society. China has a very long history and this was the dominant thinking for much of that time. Even if it is wrong it is still worth learning for that reason alone.' However, she said that she found some of the moral philosophy 'too idealistic'. 'In the old world, life was a lot simpler. I think it's not necessarily relevant to life in today's society.' But Richard Lee Wai-ho, 18, said he felt the teachings were relevant. 'A lot of what he was thinking and teaching is about human nature, and that hasn't changed, so it is still relevant today,' he said. Given its importance in Chinese culture and thinking, it is perhaps surprising that Confucian schools in Hong Kong are vastly outnumbered by schools of other persuasions - Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists and even Daoists. Dr Tong said this was because Confucian associations had not been active enough during Hong Kong's economic development in the 1960s and 1970s when there was a mass population influx from north of the border. 'In this period, Confucians did not push hard enough,' he said. 'Of course under British rule, it was also easier for the Sheng Kung Hui or the Catholic diocese to build schools. So it ended up that a lot of the next generation of Chinese people grew up in their schools.' But Dr Tong said Confucius' unique status as both a philosopher and a religious patriarch meant his teachings could also be introduced at schools of other religions. 'A lot of Catholic or Protestant schools also push Confucius,' he said. 'There are some Marxist schools that don't like Confucius but the Christian schools do.' Form Seven student Jack Ng King-yui, 19, said he had attended Confucian schools through primary and secondary education and valued the strong sense of right and wrong that this had given him. He said one of the most memorable sections was a passage in the Analects, which said that when walking with three people, at least one would be able to teach you something. 'You can learn from the people around you every day, not just your teacher. I think it's amazing that all these years ago, Confucius had already realised this.' Confucianism has, however, attracted its fair share of flak over the years. Central to the Confucian beliefs is a regimented social structure based around the family. Each person's role and responsibilities are clearly defined according to five key relationships: ruler/subject; husband/wife; father/son; elder brother/younger brother; friend/friend. The hierarchal nature of these relationships (the relationship between friends is the most egalitarian but even this carries the implication of one being senior to the other) has been criticised for formalising and legitimising sexual and social inequalities in traditional society. But Woo Kwok-yin, principal of Ho Kwok Pui Chun College, said the school felt these helped students to develop a sense of social responsibility. 'We extract the sayings of Confucius and then explain the essence and how you relate it to modern life, to the daily life of the students,' he said. Filial piety was a key focus. 'Their parents take care of them and worry about them, and on the other hand they have the responsibility and have a duty to report to their parents. Is it too conservative? It sounds quite conservative, not too open. But in actual fact, it is really quite necessary for the children to make better relations with their parents.' Mr Woo said he believed the influence of Confucianism was experiencing a renaissance. 'I think the influence [on local education] is much greater than it was when I first came to be principal of this school, six years ago. Maybe it is closely related to the political atmosphere.' The Hong Kong government had placed greater emphasis on Chinese culture since the handover, he said. 'It is a favourable environment for us to emphasise Confucianism among our students and also in the area. That is one of the reasons why we have become quite popular, relatively speaking, in the district.' Dr Tong said this mirrored a change of stance in the mainland. 'In its early years, Communist China was opposed to Confucius, especially during the Cultural Revolution. But that has been changing over the past 10 years or so.' The central government has latched on to Confucius' potential as a marketing brand, a vehicle with which to project Chinese culture to the world. In partnership with universities overseas, it is establishing more than 100 Confucian centres, intended as the Chinese equivalent of the British Council. Dr Tong said this was an extension of the goal the late Deng Xiaoping had set of establishing Chinese culture on the world stage. 'And if you want the real, true Chinese culture, that is Confucianism, not Marxism,' he said.