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China’s Glorious Culture Preserved Through Traditional Education Deteriorated Quickly Under Communism

Carolina is a journalism student based in Canada who enjoys learning and sharing information about how to lead a meaningful life. She is passionate about traditional culture, handmade crafts, and the connection between humans and nature.
Published: September 6, 2022
Ancient Chinese scholars worked hard on cultivating their minds and hearts to align with traditional principles, like Unity of Heaven and Man, depicted in this ink drawing. (Image: Chen Xiaofeng via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)

Teaching is considered one of the noblest of occupations. Traditional education not only educates the members of a society, but also serves as a timeless vehicle for preserving the wisdom and traditions of our ancestors.

As the social, moral and political components of a society change, so does its educational system. Thus, the way people are taught to fulfill their role in society is often a faithful indicator of the cultural and social circumstances during a given era.

In ancient China, good character and conduct were stressed above the accumulation of knowledge, promoting self-discipline, social stability and good leadership. With the present  communist rule, however, the purpose of learning has been distorted beyond recognition.

Nowadays, students are educated in socialist values and Marxist beliefs, with the pursuit of academic results and recognition prioritized above all else. Disparaging traditional values in education has proved to be a disastrous move for China in the long run.

Traditional educational goals

In the unique setting of ancient China, cultivating noble virtues was first and foremost. According to Confucius, learning to be compassionate, sincere and respectful was more important than gaining knowledge and learning skills. In fact, only after cultivating these virtues could a person continue to pursue his or her life goals.

The ancients believed that the development of virtue and ethical values could only be achieved through self-cultivation. Thus, each individual was expected to rectify his mind and purify his heart with every thought and every action; forging righteous behavior that would harmonize his home and ultimately strengthen the nation. 

The role of teachers in ancient China was to guide children through the path of  self-cultivation to become independent and virtuous adults. If knowledge was taught, it was aimed at seeking the Tao, or the Great Way, and understanding its manifestation in the world. This would provide the philosophical foundations to guide their daily behavior.

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Northern Qi Scholars Collating Classic Texts. The primary purpose of traditional education in ancient China was to cultivate noble virtues. Learning knowledge and skills was secondary. (Image: Yang Zihua via Wikimedia Commons)

Tragically, the goal of education in today’s China is radically different. When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power in 1949, it saw traditional culture as an ideological threat and denounced China’s spiritual heritage as feudal nonsense. Since then, Chinese students have been forced to abandon their cultural roots and accept concepts that conform to the Party’s materialist theory.

One of the main objectives of communist education is to have students understand the essence of socialism as a guide to all their judgments and political opinions. Thus, teachers have the duty to fill their students’ minds with the “correct” theories, and instill faith in the Party.

Music and rituals in ancient early education

In ancient China, it was customary for children to start school at the age of eight. They were taught basic rituals and how to perform daily household chores. Archery, mathematics and Chinese characters were also at the core of early education, with a special emphasis on music.

Ancient people valued the effects that music has on people’s hearts. The Book of Rites, a Confucianist book compiled in the Han Dynasty, states that “Virtue is the strong stein of (man’s) nature, and music is the blossoming of virtue.” Confucius explained that music was the best way to promote kindness among people, as it resonates within and reflects inner beauty. 

In ancient China, music and personal conduct were closely related. It was believed that virtuous tones had the ability to lift and nourish a person’s mind, leading to righteous behavior. In contrast, indulgent and superficial music was believed to discourage moral restraint, resulting in degeneration of character.

Li Xiangjun was a prolific poet during the Ming Dynasty. In ancient China, it was believed that an artist’s virtue was more important than his or her abilities. (Image: Cui He via Wikimedia Creative Commons)

In today’s China, early education is centered on obedience to the state and the CCP. For example, the Chinese Ministry of Education recently announced the addition of “Xi Jinping Thought” into the curriculum with the purpose of cultivating the builders and successors of socialism. Before this, the ideologies of other Party leaders were also added to the CCP constitution as a means of continually affirming the “greatness, glory, and correctness” of the Party.

Family virtues extended to the nation 

According to the Confucian book Great Learning, “Advocating virtue comes after ruling the country; ruling the country comes after managing the family; and managing the family comes after self-cultivation.” If a person was to fulfill his role in society, it was necessary that he cultivated the most fundamental virtues at home.

A person who was filial to his parents would naturally be filial to the emperor and become a loyal official. Similarly, someone who was compassionate to his siblings would likely become a considerate friend and a kind citizen. Those who showed respect for their elders were sure to be humble and exemplary individuals.

By rectifying his conduct in the domestic sphere, any well-cultivated individual should be capable of managing his family and, by extension, his country; but all these essential duties were grounded on cultivating oneself. 

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The Analects is an ancient book containing ideas and lessons attributed to Confucius. Along with the Great Learning, It is one of the Four Books that illustrated the core values and beliefs in ancient China’s education. (Image: Confucius and his disciples via Wikimedia Commons)

When the Cultural Revolution took place in China, communist leaders were forced to draw a clear line between their families and themselves. Youth were encouraged to love Mao Zedong — founder of the Communist Party — more than their parents, and it was common for children to spy and report on their parents and even attack them in struggle sessions. 

Within decades, the traditional family structure in China began to deteriorate, with families decreasing in size, fewer generations living in the same household and alarming divorce rates.

China’s infamous one-child policy further weakened the family unit. Millions of women were subjected to forced abortions, while the number of males — who could pass on the family line — increased compared to females. 

With a declining birth rate and rapidly aging population, China is facing an unprecedented demographic crisis. Despite the CCP’s recent three-child policy — urging young citizens to produce offspring to sustain the future economy — China’s fertile generations seem reluctant to start a family, with reasons ranging from grueling professional demands to the high costs of raising a child. 

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Good leadership requires virtue

It is stated in the book of Great Learning that the goal of learning was “To cultivate the great virtue endowed by heaven and reach the realm of greatest compassion.” Compassion was the noblest way to handle personal relationships and affairs between nations.

The ancients believed that only through brotherly love and sincerity could one lead the people. They knew that a person’s greatness was not defined by his knowledge, status, wealth or nobility, but by his moral standard. Therefore, no matter what occupation people had or how wealthy they became, they never changed their goal of self-cultivation.

If a ruler wanted to change people’s behavior, he first had to change his own. In the same way the wind leads the grass to move, virtuous conduct is able to influence others.

The system of education in modern China emphasizes the Communist Party culture of political struggle. Following a militarized educational model, students motivated by self-interest compete to stand out and use unscrupulous means to obtain power and influence.

Student leaders are tied to organizations directly linked to the CCP. They often emulate the behavior of party officials, demanding to be treated with respect and expecting to be addressed with elaborate titles, and receive various benefits with their positions.

Ancient China is said to have enjoyed semi-divine culture, earning its blessings through virtuous behavior. In contrast, the CCP’s rejection and outright persecution of traditional values, as seen in the ongoing persecution of Falun Gong — a spiritual practice grounded in the principles of Truthfulness, Compassion, Forbearance — seems to be incurring heaven’s wrath. Natural disasters, economic collapse and social instability abound when a nation educates against moral principles.

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