Scholarship and education

New classical education fills a void

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For the past two weeks the editorial sections of major newspapers and newsmagazines have been awash in debate about guóxué (国学), or "National Studies." Renmin University in Beijing announced that it was launching a College of National Studies in an attempt to revive interest in the classics nearly a century after they were discarded as relics of feudalism.

This is only one in a series of revivals of traditional culture. Last fall a memorial for the birthday of Confucius was for the first time sponsored by the government in Qufu. The Chinese government has embarked on an international Chinese-language and culture education program, founding "Confucius Institutes" across the globe. And just yesterday the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences formally announced the creation of a Confucianism Research Center within its Institute of World Religions.

All that's left to complete the hype is a meaningless online poll. Sina manages the astonishing feat of reporting that 45% of netizens can recite 10 to 50 classical poems and 44% read the Analects regularly, while simultaneously quoting experts and poll participants who blast the survey's validity.

Why the sudden interest in this subject?

Guóxué essentially refers to traditional learning - Confucianism, philosophy, history, and literature - stretching from pre-Qin documents all the way through the end of the Qing dynasty. Renmin University president Ji Baocheng defines it this way:

Guóxué research is an important way to preserve and extend the spirit of traditional Chinese humanism. It takes the canon of traditional Chinese culture as its focus, and the techniques of traditional Chinese scholarship as its methodology . . . we will carefully examine the training methods of ancient Chinese academies. Memorization and recitation, for example, are very important techniques in guóxué education...is it possible to study guóxué without memorizing the classics?

Proponents claim that the one-two punch of the vernacularization movement in the early 20th century, which decried the stagnant and anti-scientific state of traditional learning, and the anti-Confucian movement in the 60s, which saw pre-revolutionary thinking as feudal, unfairly cut off Chinese scholarship from its heritage.

On the other hand, says the opposition, if students study ancient learning using ancient methods, can stilted eight-leg essays be far behind? Or will China finally be able to return to the glory days of the 19th century?

While we haven't quite reached the level of venom spewed by both sides during the vernacularization movement of the 20s, the debate has not been entirely subdued. Supporters have painted those opposed to reviving guóxué as cultural traitors who are enamoured of all things Western. And a relatively level-headed article critical of the Institute's supporters ended by slamming Ji Baocheng over his misuse of the classical language.

It's a valid target, because one of the goals Ji Baocheng has expressed for the institute is to improve its students' use of written Chinese. How does one get a job with a classics degree? With a large, multinational corporation that has need of someone who can write letters and documents fluently. Or with the government, where editing important and authoritative documents requires someone who can punctuate carefully (here's where the opposing side points out that classical Chinese didn't really have punctuation to speak of).

Other voices speak out in support of education in traditional culture, but believe that it should come earlier - there's no point in memorizing books of essays at the college level if you haven't had the foundation in primary and middle school. In an experimental curriculum revision from 2001, classical poetry and prose make up 35%-45% of the literary selections. And although professor Zhang Liwen, Dean of Renmin University's Confucian Institute, claims:

Today, Chinese college students might know foreign cultures better than they know Chinese national culture. They can easily cite names of the western literati like Shakespeare, Tolstoy or Tagore, but if you ask them about the Eight Literati of China's Tang and Song Dynasties, few of them could provide a complete answer,

this statement is belied by the recent college entrance exam questions that were heavily classical in nature.

This College of National Studies is not Renmin University's first foray into traditional culture. In 2001, it became the first university on the mainland to erect a giant statue of Confucius. This was perceived at the time to be politically dangerous, but the Education Ministry sent a vice-Director to the ribbon-cutting who gave his blessing. Zhang Liwen's Confucian Research Institute was set up in 2002.

Xinhua's alternative newsweekly, Oriental Outlook, explains the logic behind Renmin University's decision to set up this college:

In comparison to other universities, China Renmin University, founded amid the flames of the anti-Japanese war in 1937 as Shaanbei Public College, was called the "No. 2 Party School" and was a base for the governing party to train outstanding individuals. Because of this background, its decision to found the first post-revolution Institute of National Studies deserves more thought than just the simple question, "Will there be a renaissance in National Studies?"

Why is Renmin University at the forefront of promoting National Studies? Zhang Liwen feels that Renmin University is fundamentally a college of humanities and sociology, and humanities ought to include national studies. As the first mainland university to launch a national studies college, Renmin University is displaying foresight.

Professor Qian Xun of the Institute of Mentality and Culture at Tsinghua University said during an interview with Oriental Outlook that Renmin University's founding of the College of National Studies is without a doubt closely related to the government's promotion of traditional culture. Without that background such a move wouldn't have been proposed, and even were it proposed it could not have been enacted.

Reading between the lines, you might guess at what the unpublishable conventional wisdom says about the Institute: the promotion of traditional Chinese culture at the "No. 2 Party School" is a tacit admission that Marxist Education is utterly bankrupt.

Oriental Outlook hammers the point home by noting that the latest urban slogan campaign, "harmonious society" 和谐社会, is an ideal drawn from traditional Chinese culture and is diametrically opposed to the orthodox Marxist-Leninist view of class struggle.

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