Tea Leaf Nation

Is Beijing Getting Scared of Homeschooled Confucian Activists?

The Communist Party's enthusiasm for private Confucian schools is cooling. It could be fearful of a moral system outside its control.

JINING, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 28:  (CHINA OUT) People wearing raincoats participate in 2014 Confucius Memorial Ceremony on September 28, 2014 in Jining, Shangdong province of China. Memorial ceremony to mark the 2,565th birthday anniversary of Confucius was held in Jining on Sunday.  (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)
JINING, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 28: (CHINA OUT) People wearing raincoats participate in 2014 Confucius Memorial Ceremony on September 28, 2014 in Jining, Shangdong province of China. Memorial ceremony to mark the 2,565th birthday anniversary of Confucius was held in Jining on Sunday. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

Confucius is back in China, in multiple and shifting forms. His thoughts pop up in academic conferences and kitschy television game shows, and his words are invoked by prominent political leaders and popular cultural posers alike. Self-styled Confucians of various stripes argue with one another about what “Confucianism” really means.

The efflorescence of Confucianisms, however, is a bit too diverse and free-wheeling for China’s ruling Communist Party. The country’s educational institutions abroad might be called “Confucius Institutes” and President Xi Jinping might praise the Sage at official events, but that doesn’t mean that Confucianism is for just anyone, as far as the Party is concerned.

In February, the country’s Ministry of Education issued a notice aimed at reigning in one aspect of the multivalent Confucian revival: private schools that emphasize classical philosophical texts and practices. Although specific mention of sishu — traditional schools — does not appear until the notice’s fifth subheading, a follow up article in state-owned Global Times makes the announcement’s intent clear: “As parents are increasingly turning to traditional Chinese methods to educate their children, local education departments have been told to pay close attention to private schools that use these methods, known as sishu.”

But the Global Times adds that there are about 3,000 traditional private schools across the country, enrolling only about 18,000 students. This is a tiny speck in the universe of all Chinese primary and secondary school students. Why is the Ministry of Education so worried by such a fringe practice?

Sociologists Sebastien Billioud and Joel Thoraval, from the Sorbonne and the School for Higher Studies in Social Sciences in Paris respectively, proffer one answer in their book The Sage and the People: The Confucian Revival in China, a marvelous, finely-grained study of contemporary popular Confucianism. They note the very small scale of traditional private schools, but go on to suggest a lurking danger: “The reason why sishu education today really matters is less linked to its weight in [the] Chinese educational system than to the fact that it might produce new generations of Confucian activists.”

There’s the rub: private schools operate beyond the reach of the state. They educate a rising generation with a moral code that could be used as a basis of criticism of authoritarian tyranny. As the ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius tells us, “The people are of the greatest importance, the altars of soil and grain are next, and the ruler is of the least importance.” If the people are not flourishing, and traditional rituals are not respected, rulers can be expendable. The implicit challenge of that passage was so threatening to Ming dynasty founder Zhu Yuanzhang that he tried to have it deleted from the standard text.

Traditionally, Confucianism was used to back up the state — but also to challenge it. As early as 141 BC, Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty demanded that newly appointed government officials have a Confucian education, a move to consolidate his power against the Daoist and Legalist cadres loyal to his late grandmother, Empress Dowager Dou. It was not until about 650 CE, however, that a formal, Confucian-inflected civil service exam took shape, a practice that was more strictly institutionalized in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). From then on, access to state power was essentially restricted to those who had mastered the Confucian classics, and those bureaucrats invoked Confucian moral theory to legitimize their political authority.

Confucianism, however, has never been simply a matter of blind obedience to authority. At various points in history, righteous civil servants would cite Confucian principles to criticize politically wayward Emperors. Most famous, perhaps, is Hai Rui, a Ming Dynasty official who pressed for land reform and was dismissed from office. His story was later used by reformist Chinese Communist officials in the post-Great Leap Forward period as a symbolic critique of Mao Zedong’s autocracy.

In the post-Mao period, party officials, like many others, are aware of the sense of moral void in contemporary China. The existence of private Confucian schools tells us something about the cultural anxieties many Chinese are experiencing. Rapid economic growth has brought with it equally rapid social change: urbanization, materialism, sexual liberation, and individualization. In the tumult of the times, there’s a strong feeling that moral bearings, already pulverized in the Mao era, have been lost. People don’t have a shared sense of right and wrong — at least, so say various writers and intellectuals. There is, in short, a “moral crisis” in China.

Faced with such uncertainty, many Chinese people have turned toward religion. Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, Islam, and various indigenous doctrinal combinations and amalgams have burgeoned forth in contemporary Chinese society. It is in this context that Confucianism, for some, has come to be seen as a source of meaning and moral guidance; even if it isn’t a religion (as many have argued), it’s serving a religious function.

And so, some concerned citizens, not to mention a few charlatans here and there, have opened private schools, using curricula drawn from traditional Confucian texts and practices to provide primary and secondary students with a morally grounded education. In some cases, children memorize and read aloud passages from classic works, sometimes donning traditional clothes. There are after-school and weekend classes for those not quite ready to leave regular public school behind, as well as academies that provide formal full-day courses of study.

But this newly created abundance of private school options runs up against nationally mandated standards for compulsory education. In China, all students are expected to complete school through junior high, the equivalent of ninth grade in the American system. The massive, centrally managed public education apparatus offers one nationally consistent curriculum for each grade. A second-year junior high student in the far reaches of Yunnan province covers the same material at roughly the same time as her Shanghai peers and faces the same test at the end of the third year of junior high to determine whether she will be able to continue on to upper high school and college. It is a rigid and highly competitive system.

Parents looking for a morally meaningful educational alternative thus face a daunting choice. If they place their children in private Confucian academies, a move that must be approved by local authorities charged with implementing compulsory education laws, they could be placing them at a distinct disadvantage. Time taken in reciting the Analects and Mencius is time taken away from preparing for the national upper high school entrance examination, not to mention the crushingly challenging college entrance exam, the dreaded gaokao.

Yet some Chinese parents willingly choose to place their children in private schools that will, in their eyes, make them better people, even at the cost of limiting their career prospects. In some ways, it’s a parallel to Christian homeschooling in the United States — a deliberate sacrifice of opportunity in service of moral values. But unlike most U.S. evangelicals, the Chinese who pick Confucianism haven’t been raised in this system themselves. Instead, they’re trying to give their kids something they never had.

For its part, the Party is also trying to provide a sense of moral leadership, but one defined and controlled entirely by itself. Confucius, in this schema, serves more as a backdrop for a nationalistic assertion of China’s perennial greatness than a guide to how to live virtuously, criticize unjust leaders, or rule well.

And Communist Party leaders have more to fear from Confucianism than did Imperial rulers. Even though Xi likes to present himself as a cultivated gentleman, dropping references to classical works in his speeches now and again, his ingrained Leninism rejects ideological or philosophical currents beyond Party control. He is happy to tolerate, even encourage, the revival of Confucianism and other forms of traditional culture, but only insofar as they do not challenge Party hegemony. From the vantage of Zhongnanhai, the imperial compound that houses the Party leaders, even relatively small social movements, like the emergence of private Confucian schools, need to be controlled while still in their infancy. If they are not, the words of Confucius might come to haunt Xi and company: “But if [rulers] are not good, and no one opposes them, may there not be expected from this one sentence the ruin of his country?”

Image credit: Getty

Sam Crane is W. Van Alan Clark '41 Third Century Professor in the Social Sciences at Williams College, where he teaches contemporary Chinese politics and ancient Chinese philosophy. His most recent book is: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Dao: Ancient Chinese Thought in Modern American Life.