“Fed up with the education system,” runs the headline in the May 24th South China Morning Post’s Classically Framed, “some mainland parents are sending their children to traditional schools, where the sole subject is the Confucian canon”:
Teachers at Luming School in eastern Shenzhen start every class with the same instruction: “Children, read after me.”
The pupils open their textbooks – always one of the nine authoritative works of Confucianism – and begin carefully reciting the ancient words. Line after line, the teacher leads the class in a drone of 2,500-year-old verse, assisted by two other teachers to ensure the children’s sounds are consistent and non-stop.
The process continues for six hours a day to best ensure the pupils absorb each of the Four Books and Five Classics in its entirety. When one work is finished, the teacher moves on to the next or simply begins the same one again. One book may be read as many as 600 times.
Pupils do not fear their exams. There are none.
This is a sīshú [私塾], an old-style private school occupying a converted six-storey farm residence in the shadow of Wuton Mountain. The boarding school is one of about a dozen full-time sishu that have opened in the surrounding area in recent years as a small but passionate group of parents and educators seek a return to traditional teaching methods and the values they are thought to instil.
How popular are these private establishments? Reporter Sally Wang says it’s “impossible to know how many sishus have sprung up around the country, as few, if any have registered with the education authorities.” One website promoting these establishments lists more than 100, and Mencius Mother’s School in Shanghai—which debuted in 2002—is “widely believed to be the first full-time sishu to open as part of the latest revival.”
However, many see the study of classics as “complementing rather than replacing conventional schooling,” so weekend sishu are gaining in popularity.