Last night had dinner with Lai Guoqiang (赖国强), his wife and Miss Liang, a friend, who organized the dinner. Miss Liang is from Hunan, where she was an area (地区) first place (状元) and provincial subject first place in the college entrance exam. She graduated with a degree in French from Fudan University and now works in an international company. Mr. Lai was a Jiangxi district second place, but because his family was poor, he studied IT at a military school and was then assigned a job in Guangxi, where he met his wife. In terms of the gaokao system, both Miss Liang and Mr. Lai succeeded (出成绩).
Nevertheless, Miss Liang and Mr. Lai share a sense that their education failed to teach them how to be human (做人). They said that Chinese classical education prepared students to understand their place in the world, their obligations, and how to handle unexpected challenges. In contrast, modern education only prepared them to handle technical problems, but left them feeling empty. In different ways, both have spent the past decade trying to figure out how they can remedy this situation and help the next generation avoid a similar tragedy.
Mr. Lai’s quest began with the birth of his daughter. When she was three years old, he began having her listen to classical recitations. However, he realized that these recitations didn’t help children learn because there wasn’t a space for imitating the adult. Instead, Mr. Lai transferred these recitations from tapes onto computer and then slowed them down, leaving spaces in which his daughter could repeat after the adult. After nine years, his daughter can recite from memory, the Dao De Jing, the Yi Jing, many Tang poems and Song ci, in addition to many other classics from the four books and five classics (四书五经). Mr. Lai says that when children are young, they can memorize. When they are older they will realize (悟) the rich meaning of these classics. According to Mr. Lai, if students don’t memorize the classics when they are young, they have missed the window of opportunity, and will grow up in a state of ignorance similar to the one in which he finds himself.
This situation motivated Mr. Lai to develop a series of classics on CD that are recorded to facilitate memorization. The accompanying text has characters and pinyin. Importantly, this method of education does not require the students to understand or write the characters of the classics. Instead, the first step to learning is to memorize. And that is all they have to do. Individual lessons are organized to be completed within five minutes. Students listen and repeat (跟读; literally follow recite) for five minutes everyday, each lesson is repeated for one week, and then they move onto the next lesson. There is no pressure to recite, to write, or to interpret the texts. Mr. Lai has divided the lessons into three three-year chunks, so that after nine years, students will have the classics in their hearts, waiting to blossom as students’ understanding deepens over time. His company, 育心经典 is online.
I have been thinking about the implications of this method for pedagogy. It seems appropriate for texts that were originally transmitted orally, and indeed, were written parallel couplets that are easily memorized and beautifully recited. The goal, of course, is 变通 (biangtong: to adapt one method to different contexts) and (by implication) solve problems (处理事情). I remember when I was first learning Chinese in college. My teacher, Mr. Jiang told me that if I memorized poems, reciting them every morning, there would come a day, when I would be sitting on a park bench and a poem would come to mind. I would 悟 (wu) the poem’s 意境 (yijing, a word that has been badly translated as “artistic concept”, but seems to me to be more “the imaginary world” of a poem or painting). This experience would be both the interpretation and fulfillment of the poem; I would truly understand. At stake in this understanding of education is not simply a moral order, but also an understanding of creativity as being able to apply the lessons of the past to the present; this is biantong.
Nevertheless, I’m not sure how easily this pedagogy enables biantong. My uncertainty arises because this kind of learning too easily becomes rote memorization for tests, such as the gaokao and not because biantong isn’t a form of creativity often used in the arts and scientific discovery. Clearly, memorization is an important element of any pedagogy. The question is whether or not it is the only or highest form of learning. That said, the detrimental effects of the gaokao system are part of the problem that Mr. Lai is trying to solve through this turn to the classics.
More significantly, both Mr. Lai and Miss Liang understand memorization of the classics to be a method for rectifying current social problems. They see corruption, disillusion, cynicism, and indifference to be symptoms of a society that has lost its moral bearings. In order to live prosperous and happy lives (幸福), people must understand their place in the moral order. Once they have understood their place in the moral order, any job that they take, any role that they assume will be a vehicle for expressing this truth and society will naturally become harmonious.
I have discussed this conversation with two friends, both of who were educated abroad and have Master’s degrees. They agree that Mr. Lai’s understanding of and proposed solution to the problem of childhood education makes sense (有道理). They agree that to understand Chinese philosophy and history it is necessary to wu and the precondition of wu is having memorized the texts. They also agree that China’s social problems arise from a fundamental failing of the educational system to teach moral values. Generally speaking, they believe that the system succeeds in teaching fundamentals, but fails to prepare students for life.
So grassroots neo-Confucianism has come to Shenzhen, city without recognizable and therefore recoverable history. Ironies abound.