Confucius Reenters China's Schools to Parry Western Ways ; Cultural Heritage Lessons Help the Chinese Join the World Economic Scene without Completely Absorbing Western Cultural Values

By Sarah Carr Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 8, 2006 | Go to article overview

Confucius Reenters China's Schools to Parry Western Ways ; Cultural Heritage Lessons Help the Chinese Join the World Economic Scene without Completely Absorbing Western Cultural Values


Sarah Carr Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


On a recent Friday afternoon in this southern Chinese province, the fourth-graders at Bowen International School were sitting up straight, their arms neatly crossed in front of them, belting out 13th-century Chinese poems on the virtues of being polite, respecting their parents, and working hard in school.

"To behave as a younger brother towards elders, is one of the first things to know," the children chanted with drill-like intensity. Deborah Chan, an administrator at the school, noted that while the students probably don't grasp the full meaning of the texts, which are written in archaic characters, she hopes the lessons will stay with them.

"Now the government ... pays attention to ancient Chinese culture," Ms. Chan observes. "Ancient Chinese culture is seen to have advantages in teaching students very moral things."

But as the government asks schools like Bowen to focus more on classic Chinese literature and art - including the teachings of Confucius, who emphasized traditional values and respect for elders - recent national curriculum reforms also call for more creativity and critical thinking in the classrooms, including some approaches to teaching and learning more traditionally found in the United States and Europe.

The apparent contrasts in teaching trends reflect China's ambitions to forge ahead as a player in the world economic scene without completely absorbing Western cultural values along the way.

So while some lessons transport the children back to ancient China, others aim to prepare the students for a more modern, global future. Even as the children at Bowen practice their ancient recitations, Chan points out some of the school's other telling features, including summer foreign-exchange programs and a new 10- story international center that towers over the rest of the campus.

Wang Jiajun, the principal of the Beijing Huijia Private School, says the goal is simple: "We want our students to become world people with Chinese hearts."

'Spiritual pollution'

As classes end this day at Bowen, the students leave behind the traditional gu zheng music lessons, kung fu exercises, and ancient Chinese poems. They chatter excitedly about upcoming weekend plans to watch Western television shows and surf the Internet.

Pointing to such conflicting influences, Don Wyatt, the chair of the history department at Middlebury College, notes that there's a risk with this latest effort to balance tradition with modernity, and China with the West.

"Some of the values that come with globalization are, of course, democracy and human rights," he says. "Yes, there is a risk with respect to this, but I think from the standpoint of the Chinese state, it's an acceptable risk."

There's an "old convention" in Chinese education of integrating Western methods with Chinese traditions, says professor Wyatt.

For instance, in the 1870s, about 120 boys were sent abroad to study in America - but only with Confucian mentors by their sides. …

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