2017-04-28 18:39:42 William Matthews
Arabella Kushner, five-year old granddaughter of President Trump, made herself even more popular with Chinese netizens last month by singing in Chinese and reciting a Chinese poem for Xi Jinping and Peng Liyuan during their visit to the United States. That the young granddaughter of an American President has learned this classic says something interesting about the world today. Not only does it reflect the increasing importance of Chinese as an international language, and all that that implies for changes in world politics and economics, but it also demonstrates the reach of Chinese tradition into the present day.
The poem Arabella recited is known as the ‘Three Character Classic’ (San Zi Jing), composed during the thirteenth century in the Song dynasty – a good choice for recitation to a Chinese leader famously fond of the Chinese classical tradition. In traditional China children learned it by heart as a moral guide, and recently it has made a comeback in the People’s Republic. Last year I wrote about the growing popularity of teaching the Chinese classics to children, with extra-curricular Confucian schools springing up across the country. The Three Character Classic plays a central part in this, its short rhyming couplets making it especially easy to remember.
The ancient Three Classic Character text
But why does it suddenly have relevance today? For a child like Arabella, learning Chinese as a second language, the poem is a fun and fairly painless way of getting used to the sounds of Chinese, even if not the meaning of the words (just as it was for young children in the past). For anyone interested in Chinese culture, it provides a neat rhyming summary of Confucian moral values, starting with its snappy assessment of human nature:
Men at their birth are naturally good.
Their natures are much the same; their habits become widely different.
If foolishly there is no teaching, the nature will deteriorate.
To understand why the poem is popular in China, it’s best to start from this perspective. Many Chinese parents worry that state education, with its focus on exams and what many see as ‘useless’ knowledge – things that children won’t ever need to use practically – is not equipping their children well for adult life. For these parents, the reason that the Three Character Classic has stood the test of time is that it works in developing children’s morals. Like the poem says, to be brought up as good people, children must be taught the right things.
Of course, being a children’s poem, and famously short (only around 2000 characters), the amount of wisdom it contains is limited, if pithy. As in the past, it serves as a gateway into the more complex Chinese classics, like the works of Confucius and Mencius – and it is these big players of Chinese thought that parents really hope will influence their children’s development. Even if they don’t understand what they’re reading now, the thinking goes, if they memorise the texts then they will be able to apply their wisdom as adults.
But it isn’t just the children who are delving into their cultural heritage. Many of the parents spearheading classical education are making efforts to learn about the classics themselves. Generations who grew up during or just after the Maoist period were largely deprived of an education in anything Mao’s regime had supressed as ‘feudal’ – including anything to do with Confucius. Since then, interest in traditional wisdom has exploded, and since the early 2000s has intensified into organised grassroots Confucian movements promoting moral education and awareness of Chinese tradition.
Whilst some people get fully involved in reviving Confucian rituals and ceremonies, many more access classical learning through popular TV shows, like Beijing Normal University Professor Yu Dan’s centrally-broadcast series on the Analects of Confucius. This series accompanied her book on the same subject, now translated into English as Confucius from the Heart, as well as another on the teachings of the philosopher Zhuangzi. These join a multitude of accessible introductions to Chinese philosophy which focus on its relevance to modern life, and provide translations of the often obscure classical prose into modern Chinese. At the same time, adult learners can take advantage of a growing number of evening classes, often led by a local expert on one or more classical texts. Students sit in rows, each with their own copy of the text, and the class goes through it one paragraph at a time, reciting it out loud before the teacher explains the meaning. These classes also foster a sense of community based on traditional ideas, and participants share ideas about their studies, and those of their children, as well as organising special talks and field trips to local sites of cultural importance.
A national studies class
All these activities relate to ‘national studies’ (guoxue), an umbrella term referring to the study of Chinese traditional knowledge. This idea began to take hold at the turn of twentieth century; after suffering repeated humiliation at the hands of the European powers and Japan, China was forced to reconceptualise its place in the world and its own identity. ‘National studies’ was one solution, presenting Chinese thought as a unique form of knowledge. Its resurgence today comes at a time when China is taking back the leading role on the world stage that it lost in the 1800s. Bolstered by economic prosperity, access to education, and increased social mobility, more and more Chinese today approach ‘national studies’ as a source of cultural pride.
This is not just a grassroots phenomenon. After Mao, the ‘national studies’ movement soon resurfaced in Chinese academia, as intellectuals pondered the place of classical learning in a modernising nation. Many see Confucian values as a way of filling the moral and ideological vacuum left behind by Maoism, and as a counter to rampant consumerism. Some thinkers even go so far as to advocate an explicitly Confucian-ordered society. And the government has taken note. China’s soft power efforts abroad centre on ‘Confucius Institutes’ teaching language and culture. The Party has experimented with promoting officials based partly on their adherence to Confucian virtues, such as respect for their parents. And President Xi Jinping is well-known, and admired, for his penchant for peppering his speeches with quotations and insights from Chinese tradition.
As China’s global clout continues to grow and living standards continue to rise, simply emulating the success of the West is giving way to the notion of a modern but distinctly Chinese identity. Whilst some revivalists do virulently oppose ‘Western’ ideas in education, including science and maths, it is highly unlikely that Chinese society will abandon the trappings of modernity. Instead, the new Confucianism is likely to accommodate certain social changes that would have been anathema to Confucius and his disciples. A focus on filial piety towards parents shows signs of returning in a tempered form, but a shift back to the Confucian subordination of women seems improbable, particularly as the younger generation takes up leading roles in society.
Classical learning in general, and Confucianism in particular, is thus becoming an increasingly legitimate means of expressing Chinese cultural identity that is also adapting to the times. Though still in its early stages, the revival of popular Confucianism and national studies shows no signs of abating; rather, the combination of a grassroots movement, academic and popular intellectual heft, and apparent state endorsement suggest that the shift to a contemporary Confucianism has a bright future. It is too early to say exactly how the Confucian revival will develop, but it is safe to say that it will be a significant force shaping the direction of Chinese society over the coming decades.