Thursday, Aug 17, 2017, 9:58 AM CST – China


National Studies

Rough Road Ahead

The comeback of traditional Chinese studies has stirred up controversies because of a lack of regulations and resources. In a modern context, reviving classical Chinese culture is easier said than done

The Chinese government has been focusing on economic development for decades. As the country’s GDP rocketed and the gap between the rich and poor spread ever-wider, Chinese people began to chase wealth in a way they hadn’t been able to for generations. But as China’s dive into materialism deepened, people started to feel a kind of spiritual crisis and loss of identity. As globalization and commercialization engulfed their lives, many sensed true “Chinese-ness” fading away. 

Today, young parents struggle to seek methods to help their children establish a sense of cultural identity, which many think cannot be achieved through a public education system that is heavily influenced by internationalization.

China’s modern education system is largely a copy of the West’s. The problem, according to some educators, is that in the West, a rounded education generally consists of efforts from both schools and religious organizations. Schools impart knowledge, while moral education tends to depend on families and, potentially, their religious beliefs. “In China, there is a lack of religious groups to shoulder the responsibility of cultivating people’s morality,” said Gong Hongyuan, co-founder of traditional Chinese school Boya Shuyuan. “Thus there is an urgent need to recapture shuyuan [academy of classical learning] culture, which can spread the Confucius spirit.”

At the same time, as China has come to be the second-largest economy in the world, the State has pinpointed cultural soft power as an element that is key for domestic stability and international acceptance. One official top initiative was a resolution to develop and promote “China’s cultural system” both at home and abroad. Abroad, China has escalated efforts to establish Confucius Institutes around the world since 2004, and domestically, a wave of an apparent obsession with guoxue, or the study of traditional Chinese philosophy, literature and art that mainly centers around Confucianism, has been sweeping the nation for nearly a decade. Lured by potential profits to be gleaned from the expanding market, guoxue education, like many things in China, is expanding too rapidly for regulations and resources to catch up.

 Facing Challenges

Despite the fact that there is a commonly accepted concept for guoxue in some academic circles, for the rest of society, ambiguity and uncertainty prevail. There are different versions; guoxue means different things to university researchers, businesspeople, government officials and children in school. Some training centers take advantage of this ambiguity by designing seminars on things like feng shui and fortunetelling while labeling it as guoxue, diminishing guoxue’s true cultural significance and confusing the public. “Such lowbrow training programs run by unqualified people are popular, while just a few private guoxue schools teach traditional Confucian theory,” said Han Demin, a professor at Beijing Language and Culture University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Yet because of a lack of established standards for guoxue schools, these institutions are held to the same standards as other private schools. Almost all existing guoxue schools cannot meet the official requirements necessary to obtain a proper private school license. They survive in a gray area by illegally registering under the names of other businesses, like cultural entities or centers that run afterschool programs.

Another byproduct of this absence of supervision are reports of some private schools using corporal punishment and other extreme methods to discipline students. “On one occasion, I saw one five-year-old boy being forced to kneel down and recite classics until he could memorize them,” said Kong Ji, a Beijing father of a three-year-old girl. Some private guoxue schools broadcast recordings of classic works for eight hours a day to push students to learn them by heart. “That made me feel like they’re turning guoxue into a cult, which would be a very terrifying phenomenon,” said Kong.

In addition to a lack of oversight, the guoxue fad suffers from a lack of qualified resources. It is easy to find teachers skilled at traditional Chinese arts, however, finding teachers qualified to teach Chinese classics is a different story. At worst, some teachers who lecture on the classics, like The Analects or the I Ching (The Classic of Changes), had never even read these books themselves before teaching them.

During the interview, Chen Lu, from guoxue school Huading Shuyuan, and Gong Hongyuan, from Boya Shuyuan, both said the lack of qualified guoxue teachers is one of the main obstacles that the industry faces.

“The cultivation of qualified teachers is a very long process,” said Chen Lu, explaining that teachers not only need to know the classics, but to live and behave according to Confucian principles. “Even our team members who have an educational background in ancient Chinese need to continue learning and to practice in the field for at least five years before becoming truly qualified to teach students.”

The problem is that while the guoxue craze is peaking now, trained teachers with five years’ experience are incredibly rare. The craze intensified too quickly; parents want their kids to learn from qualified teachers, while majoring in guoxue will be made available in some Chinese universities for the first time next year, according to the Beijing Evening News. The Ministry of Education just finished ironing out a guoxue curriculum for students from preschool through university in May of this year, and the new materials have already been used in schools in Beijing’s Tongzhou and Daxing districts on a trial basis.

In Gong Hongyuan’s words, although challenges caused by the deficiency of qualified guoxue teachers are harsh, the situation will improve. “When I was at university in the 1990s, there were a pathetically small number of students who chose to study the Chinese classics, but now more and more college students are beginning to study guoxue, and the recent increase in designated guoxue institutes in universities will definitely cultivate more useful talent in the field.” More and more universities are establishing guoxue research centers; for example Shaanxi Normal University and Central South University both opened such centers in 2014.


The government’s efforts to promote guoxue and its own take on purportedly traditional Chinese concepts have come under fire.

China’s current generation of leaders has publicly embraced Confucian ideas to such an extent that some academics, especially those who are more liberal, have objected to the officials’ top-to-bottom implementation of promoting guoxue, expressing that it’s important to fully develop the idea before plunging into it.

In Professor Han Demin’s opinion, Confucianism, which emphasizes filial piety, order and harmony, worked well in earlier societies where people often lived with a large number of extended family members, but such concepts need to be transformed to suit modern-day families. “I am not denying the positive education that guoxue can convey nowadays, but finding an effective and healthy way for its implementation remains a question,” Han said. “Indeed, I am pessimistic about how many people can really behave according to what they learn from Confucianism early on.”

If Confucianism and other guoxue philosophies are not adapted into something relevant to present-day China where utilitarianism prevails, “students will regard guoxue as another compulsory school subject that only comes up in texts and tests,” Han added.

Chen Lu shares the same concern over the potential strain that studying guoxue may bring upon children who are already weighed down by extreme academic demands. “If someday, the classics become a burden for children, that’s what we’d least like to see,” she said.

 Regarding the development of Confucianism in modern China, Han echoed the opinion of Princeton University professor Yu Ying-shih ­— that the Chinese central government’s promotion of Confucianism is the tradition’s “kiss of death.” Yu fears that the top-down promotion of institutional Confucianism would prevent true Confucianists from expressing opinions contrary to the State’s definition of the philosophy. Similarly, Han said guoxue, if implemented improperly at a local level, would either stagnate its development or push it in an unhealthy direction. “If Confucianism is made to become a part of the political system, I think it will be very hard to avoid the malpractice that has occurred throughout history [when it was used as an autocratic tool],” said Han. 


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