Back to Our Roots

By Wang Yan

A nationwide craze for studying traditional Chinese philosophy and culture has brought the Confucian classics and traditional arts back into the limelight decades after being expunged from Chinese academia. China Report explores how this trend started, and how much further it may grow

In the mid-1990s, Gong Hongyuan, then a Peking University student majoring in Chinese classics, was mocked by his peers for wasting time on what they viewed as obsolete schools of thought.

20 years later, Gong, now 38, frequently speaks to young parents eager to train their children in these supposedly “obsolete” schools of thought. Gong is the co-founder of a school that falls into the growing category of those that teach children guoxue, a term that literally translates to “national studies” but has come to mean the study of traditional Chinese philosophy, literature and culture. He has been a firsthand witness to and participant in the transformation of attitudes towards ancient Chinese culture and education over the past two decades.

Gong and two friends founded Boya Shuyuan in Beijing in 2008, with starting capital of just 250,000 yuan (US$40,300). Since then, the private school’s student body has grown from just a few students to an annual enrolment of over 70. “We started from scratch, but now we occupy four buildings and enjoy decent equipment and a playing field,” Gong said as he showed our reporter around the campus. “We offer courses including Chinese classical arts, such as calligraphy, painting and guqin [Chinese zither], to students ages three to seven. So far we’ve taught some 500 children.” The guoxue craze doesn’t stop with 500 children in private schools, however. Starting this year, Communist Party members are encouraged to take training courses in guoxue. In addition, guoxue is scheduled to be included in the gaokao, China’s national university entrance examination, a test of such paramount importance that its contents virtually dictates school curricula across the nation. Nearly 50 years after Mao Zedong told the Red Guards to “smash the Four Olds,” the entire country is starting to welcome old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas back into the fold.


The definition of “guoxue” has evolved over time, and for different people or social groups it means different things and serves different interests. The term was coined by Chinese intellectuals in the early 20th century to promote and protect Chinese culture’s core values against the threat of encroaching Western education. Although there is no single universally accepted interpretation of what guoxue is, the most commonly accepted definition is that of Zhang Taiyan (1868-1936), a Chinese philologist and revolutionary. He defined it as “all knowledge accumulated by China.” According to Zhang, guoxue is a country’s foundation, and the survival of a country and the survival of its guoxue are inextricably linked. He breaks guoxue into three components: the Confucian classics, philosophy and literature. In other words, guoxue includes all scholarly works written or produced in China over its millennia of history, be they literary, philosophical, artistic, geographical or even medical. The core of guoxue is, indisputably, Confucianism.

The shuyuan system, named for an ancient term applied to academies of classical learning and a part of Gong Hongyuan’s school’s name, emerged as a Chinese education system during the Tang Dynasty (618907). It developed and strengthened over the next thousand-plus years until the country started to embrace Western-style education in the 20th century, causing the number of shuyuan to dwindle. With Confucianism as its base, the shuyuan is responsible for cultivating students’ moral integrity and educating them on ethical principles as well as the breadth of guoxue knowledge.

Confucianism has been the dominant Chinese sociopolitical ideology since the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), although it was challenged by many during the 20th century. During the May Fourth Movement in 1919, Confucianism was criticised as an obstacle to modernisation. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Confucianism and almost all related ancient texts were denounced as feudalistic and autocratic.

It was not until the mid-1990s, well after China had enacted its policy of Reform and Opening-up and had begun to embrace a market economy, that Confucianism was rehabilitated, tentatively, into State ideology.

The first hint of guoxue’s official resurrection was a long article titled “Guoxue quietly comes back to Peking University,” printed in August 1993 in Party mouthpiece People’s Daily. Guangming Daily, another Party paper, published a piece called “The charm of guoxue and guoxue masters” in October of the same year. Then, in March 1995, nine esteemed academics, including Zhao Puchu, Bing Xin and Cao Yu, spoke at the annual Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and advocated for the establishment of schools that promote the study of Chinese classics. As a result, an experimental primary school focussing on teaching Chinese classics was set up in Miyun, a northeastern suburb of Beijing.

Yet grassroots supporters had already started to get the guoxue movement off the ground. A considerable number of small, independent schools known as Confucius Shuyuan started to quietly revitalise this branch of learning that had nearly been destroyed during the tumult of the 20th century. However, the vast majority of existing guoxue private schools fail to meet official standards for educational institutes, so they operate illegally behind front companies. The government has not caught up with guoxue’s growing popularity and there are no legal reg
ulations monitoring these types of schools.

From the Ground Up

Apart from limited government support, the major forces promoting guoxue for the past two decades have been independent grassroots agencies, Professor Xu Yong, dean of the Institute of Education History and Culture told China Report.

From 1995 to 2004, academics debated whether or not China needed a guoxue revival and, if it did, how to go about it, according to Gong Hongyuan. Then, over the past decade, supporters have been trying out different practices and exploring various teaching methods.

Various guoxue curricula emerged, with the most influential spearheaded by Taiwanese educator Wang Caigui, who first started teaching the classics to children in Taiwan, moving on to China in the late ’90s. Schools following this curriculum require students to spend hours each day memorising Confucian texts and other Chinese classics as their primary method for traditional education. The texts include The Analects, The Great Learning, The Three Character Classic, Standards for Being a Good Student and Child, The Chuang Tzu, Tao Te Ching and the I Ching (known as the Classic of Changes). According to Wang’s philosophy, children may not understand the words they recite when they’re young, but they will recall Confucius’ writings as they grow older and gradually realise the Great Sage’s relevance in modern life. Despite continuous criticism labelling this method as dull and rigid, it is still dominating guoxue education.

“This trend unavoidably resulted in pushback from some teachers, and they were not willing to explore and study the deeper meaning of the texts themselves, not even to say [to students] ‘Practice these principles in your daily life,’” Chen Lu, the executive director of guoxue-based school Huading Shuyuan, told our reporter. “However, that’s against the requirement of the Confucian theory that ‘Knowledge and action should go hand in hand.’”

Sihai Confucius Shuyuan (often referred to as the Sihai Confucius Academy), one of the oldest and most influential guoxue-focussed schools in Beijing, opened in 2006. Students enter the boarding school at age three and are expected to remain until age thirteen. They are required to memorise the most prominent Confucian texts and to be proficient in calligraphy, tai chi and the guqin.

A significant number of supporters or even founders of similar private schools that focus on guoxue education are actually parents who disliked the test-oriented, mainstream education system and were seeking an alternative for their own children.

Lin Die, 41, mother of an eight-year-old girl and founder of the school Baopu Xuetang in Beijing’s eastern Tongzhou District, is one such parent. She sent her own daughter to a guoxue-focussed nursery in the early 2010s, and started to study the Chinese classics by herself. Driven by the goal of immersing more preschool kids in the roots of Chinese culture, Lin opened Baopu Xuetang earlier this year. The school has grown rapidly, from an initial enrolment of two children to 20-something within six months. Lin admitted to our reporter that the school cannot yet break even, but she is determined to dedicate her life to this endeavour and is optimistic about its future.

For Lin, guoxue education mainly centres around the introduction of Chinese classics and aesthetics, so as to let children absorb the rhythm and beauty of ancient texts. “It is like planting a seed in the children’s hearts,” Lin told ChinaReport. “[In the future] that seed will be triggered to sprout or bloom. It’s a natural process and beyond my control.” Lin’s school practices a softer approach to teaching rather than the strict method of requiring the children to memorise entire texts.

According to Gong Hongyuan, there are hundreds of shuyuan in Beijing, both large and small, and the total number in China as a whole is estimated to have surpassed 1,000. The number of educational institutes which offer guoxue classes is estimated to be around 3,000.

Official Endorsement

“Why is Confucius so popular right now? It is because his understanding of the world, descriptions of humanity and explanations of the truth can really help us solve our own problems and those of the world,” Sihai Confucius Shuyuan founder Feng Zhe said in a 2008 interview with China Daily.

After the Cultural Revolution dismantled China’s ancient belief systems, the country entered a period of economic reform that led to newfound prosperity for many Chinese people. Instead of worrying about where they would get their next meal, many encountered a problem of a different kind – a “spiritual void.”

The central government, once indifferent to the silent grassroots movement to reintroduce guoxue in the 1990s, began to take a more vocal stance in its favour.

Top Party leaders started to give speeches advocating Confucianism, and State television launched a series of guoxue lectures. A number of guoxue “masters” emerged, headed by Yu Dan and Yi Zhongtian, both of whom became media celebrities for their modern explanations of classic verses.

In early 2005, then-Party chief Hu Jintao quoted Confucius by saying: “Harmony is something to be cherished.” Soon, “building a harmonious society” became a new mantra for the entire country. The campaign intensified when current leader Xi Jinping became president after the 18th Party Congress was held in 2012. Xi has mentioned the revitalisation of traditional Chinese culture, as exemplified by Confucianism, in almost every public speech. As shown by Xi’s speeches, Confucianism is one such traditional concept being brought in to bolster modern-day governance. On many occasions, Xi has also encouraged schools to teach the Chinese classics.

Relatedly, many shuyuan directors have recently experienced a change in local government officials’ attitudes towards them. For example, according to Chen Lu from Huading Shuyuan, instead of over-regulating her school, the local official in charge of private education has helped her to increase teachers’ resources and broaden the school’s influence.

“The strong presence and involvement of the government in promoting guoxue since the 18th Party Congress is unprecedented in the history of the People’s Republic of China,” Professor Xu Yong told our reporter. “The two joint forces of the government and the grassroots movement led to a real boom in traditional cultural education in the Chinese mainland.”

Guoxue Craze

The boom started with universities. Many of the leading universities in China started up guoxue institutes or guoxue training classes, some of which were designed for entrepreneurs and promised to reveal “commercial wisdom” in the classics.

Middle school guoxue textbooks have been compiled, with a significant amount of content now culled from the Chinese classics. In some provinces primary school pupils are made to memorise classic works such as The Three Character Classic or Standards for Being a Good Student and Child while wearing robes in the style of ancient scholars.

More Confucius statues have been erected across the country. In the sage’s hometown of Qufu, Shandong Province, a 500-million-dollar Confucius museum-and-park complex is under construction. Nearly every bookshop in China now carries numerous publications analysing and reinterpreting the Confucian classics.

Guoxue afterschool programmes have also exploded. Driven by market demand, some existent educational institutes are adding guoxue courses to the repertoire to expand their customer base. Zhang Zhuo from a Beijing branch of Xingkong Piano Training Centre told our reporter that the centre would launch a new set of classes in late July, each focussing on a different traditional Chinese art form, including the guqin, calligraphy, traditional Chinese painting and the art of the tea ceremony. “Our company’s marketing strategy is to simply provide quality educational courses for children to meet their needs,” added Zhang.

Chen Lu told our reporter that she often receives requests from marketing personnel from other institutes, mostly English training centres, who are interested in cooperating so that students from both schools can attend the other’s courses.

Quite a large number of new shuyuan have emerged within the past five years, including those that cater to China’s elite. For example, high-profile school Peide Shuyuan, which enrolls children aged two to 12, charges tuition amounting to over 120,000 yuan (US$19,320) per year.

Future Growth

Feng Zhe from Sihai Shuyuan predicted that the number of shuyuan in China will exceed 10,000 within the next 10 years as the nation re-embraces its traditional heritage.

Gong Hongyuan shares his optimism. “The previous two decades were the trial and error period for guoxue education, while the next decade will see knowledgeable and capable people emerge to promote the spirit of modern shuyuan,” he said. “The real guoxue revival will come by the middle of this century.” Gong even expects shuyuan education to reach a level of influence in the Chinese academic world comparable to that of Montessori or Waldorf curricula in the West.

As ambitious as Gong’s expectations may be, in reality there are already young people working to continue the efforts to promote guoxue-based education. Five fresh university graduates who majored in guoxue at Shanghai’s Fudan University are the perfect example – they recently set up a small guoxue school in metropolitan Shanghai. “A lot of guoxue knowledge is new for our students,” school co-founder Li Zilu told ChinaReport. “They are very interested in listening to our teachings about ancient history and traditions.”

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