USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Confucian Education in Contemporary China

With funding from the John Templeton Foundation, Joy Lam, a USC Ph.D. in sociology researched moral education in Chinese Confucian schools.

Heart & Virtue: The Revival of Confucian Education in Contemporary China

Throughout 2007 to 2008, media in the United States had widely discussed the revival of Confucianism in China as the world was paying attention on the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The establishment of Confucius Institutes around the world displayed an expansion of China’s international cultural influences, or “soft power,” through its promotion of Chinese language and culture.

Current analysis of this phenomenon tends to focus only on the active role of the party-state in employing Confucian symbols, using it to fulfill the so-called ‘ideological vacuum’ or ‘moral vacuum’ that emerged after the fall of socialist ideology and the emergence of capitalist economy as the trend of development. Others see the rise of Confucianism as a manifestation of cultural nationalism that is emerging with the growing political and economic power of China in the world.

What is lacking in these analyses, however, is the recognition that the contemporary revival of Confucianism in China is a complex and multidimensional phenomenon. The revival is recognizable in the mass culture, academic discourse, and government actions. Politically, it could observed through the government’s adaptation to an essentially Confucian concept, ‘the harmonious society’ as a keyword for policy direction in the mid-2000’s.

In the religious realm, the resurgence of Buddhism highlights the importance of embodying Confucian ethics as part of practice. In education, the emergence of Confucian classic-reading education in contemporary China focuses on the reading and recitation of Confucian classics but also the importance of self-cultivation for character development. The interconnectedness of political, religious, cultural and economic events all contribute to re-surging interests on Confucianism.

It is a curious to look back on the trajectory of the contemporary Chinese history in the past six decades and understand how Confucianism was suppressed, destroyed, abandoned, and restored again to become active and renewed. Since the beginning of the 20th century progressive liberals, including the socialists, criticized Confucianism as cultural baggage that hindered the modernization and democratization of China. Criticism towards the correlation of Confucianism and the feudal past reached its peak during the Cultural Revolution in 1970s, a time where Confucianism was considered something that was meant to be destroyed. Together with foreign religions and Christians, scholars of Confucianism were the victims of this political movement.

While the public destruction had stopped after the end of Cultural Revolution, it was not until the late 1980s that discourse surrounding Confucianism changed. Over the decades in the late 1980s through 1990s, the discourse about Confucianism, modernization and development turned drastically from criticism to the contrasting view that Confucian ethics and values have positive impacts on social and economic development. Therefore, the current revival of Confucianism provides us with a unique case to study how traditional culture, beliefs and ethics cope with the process of modernization and negotiation with the social conditions of late-modern society.


Project Goals

The focus of this research project was to understand the non-governmental education aspect of the revival of Confucianism and its larger social and religious implications. This project identified the Classic-Reading Education Movement (dujing jiaoyu yundong, CREM ) as one of the important social locations for the revival of Confucianism in contemporary China.

The CREM refers to the non-government based movement that focuses on two areas:

  1. Promote reading and recitation of Chinese classics, particularly the Confucian canonic texts including the Analects of Confucius, the Great Learning, the Doctrine of Mean and the Mencius; and
  2. Reinstate Confucian pedagogy that focuses on moral education and character development of children before 13 years old.

This project was designed to address the following three major research questions:

  • What are the different types of groups and organizations emerging that promote Confucian pedagogy in contemporary China?
  • How can we understand Confucianism as the foundation of character education and spiritual development for children?
  • How and why can parents and educators understand the role of Confucianism and its potential to provide resources for spiritual and character development?


Highlights of Key Findings

  • A detailed historical trajectory of the emergence of the CREM in China since mid-1990s was compiled, for a discourse analysis on the changing role of Confucianism in moral education in China. We also categorized the contemporary institutionalization of Confucian education into three categories, including: 1) sishu, an alternate version of the ancient form of small-class education; 2) Classic-reading school, a school that adopts Confucian pedagogy but maintains modern school structure; 3) A part-time classic-reading program that serves as an extracurricular activity during after-school hours or weekends.
  • Based on the interviews with 72 teachers and parents of classic-reading education across the two phrases of fieldwork, we found that the practical goals that focus on students’ academic and language ability, and the moral goals that focus on their adaptation to Confucian ethnics and values are both important for parents and teachers.
  • The process of participating in the CREM is as meaningful for the parents and teachers themselves as to the children. Narrative analysis on interviews reveal the yearning for tradition, community, and moral standards of the adult participants in the CREM echoes with theories on resurgence of traditional culture and religion in late-modern society
  • Joy Lam developed her dissertation based on the data generated in this project. Her dissertation further investigated how religion, tradition and modernity intersect with each other. Through looking at the CREM, she analyzed the role of Confucianism in the religious landscapes in China, and the question on the social formation of religion in contemporary context.



Phase 1: Surveying the field

In 2009, with grant support from the John Templeton Foundation, Joy Y. Lam (co-investigator for the project, Ph.D. candidate in sociology at USC) visited 11 cities and towns China for four months (July-October) to survey 16 different groups and organizations that provide classic-reading education to children. She conducted classroom observations, interacted with the students, and conducted 52 interviews with the CREM’s leaders, teachers and parents. She also participated in a five-day intensive-training workshop for classic-reading educators to gain an in-depth understanding of the Confucian pedagogy, and developed an extensive field-network for the project.

In the first phrase of fieldwork, we found that there is a strong yet ‘under-the-radar’ religious connotation in the CREM, which had been largely presenting itself as a secular education movement. We found that many activists in the CREM are religiously motivated, but not willing to openly discuss their religious beliefs, traits that are largely due to the strict government control over the religious sphere. Therefore, in the second phase of this project, we expanded our research scope by conducting further participant observations to investigate the issue of religious beliefs and classic-reading education as moral education. We wanted to understand how Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism constitute as the spiritual basis for the classic-reading education, and the issue of religiosity of Chinese people in contemporary China.

Phase 2: In-depth Participant Observation in sishu

In 2010 (April – August), Lam returned to China to conduct second phrase of fieldwork research that focused on the religious links within classic reading education. She conducted participant observation and worked as a volunteer in the Little Cradle, a grass-root voluntary organization that provides free classic reading education in an inland eastern province in China.

The location was selected because it provided classic-reading education in both full-time sishu and as part-time after-school programs that allowed the researcher to be in touch with parents from varied socio-economic backgrounds, who could present different attitudes and preferences towards classic-reading education.

The openness of the group allowed researchers to observe the interaction between the CREM activists and the general public who may or may not understand the movement, but to also see how the local authority responds to such movement. Detailed field notes based on participant observation and additional 20 in-depth interviews were collected in this phrase of fieldwork for analysis.