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Lifestyle
Cultural Renaissance
A resurgence of traditional Chinese culture brings age-old values back to modern society
By Xia Yuanyuan | NO.19 MAY 10, 2018
Children practice calligraphy in Qingdao, east China's Shandong Province, in September 2017 (XINHUA)

Dressed in a blue Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 263)-style uniform and black hat, 6-year-old Xu Ruibin chants ancient Chinese masterpieces with his classmates at the Jinglu Academy in Beijing, a classical training institute.

In recent years, old-style private institutes have emerged in many cities across China, steadily gaining in popularity. Instead of sending children to attend after-school English or dance classes, many parents are choosing to instill the traditions of Chinese culture in their children through the study of ancient literature.

Along with the youth, adults are also rekindling their awareness of classical culture, with poetry, ancient clothing, calligraphy and tai chi all back in vogue.

Starting young

"First, obey and care for your parents, and then practice true brotherhood.

"Learn to be careful and honest, and cherish all living beings.

"Draw near to good-hearted people, and study whenever you can." Xu can confidently quote these words from the Dizigui, or Standards for Being a Good Pupil and Child, written in the 17th century about Confucius' teachings. In the eyes of others, Xu is a polite and principled child who respects his elders, which is immensely gratifying to his parents and vindicates their choice of sending him to study classics.

"Compared with other training, traditional Chinese studies are a kind of enlightenment. Children follow the ancient principles of politeness and respect while studying traditional culture," Wang Qing, Xu's mother, told Beijing Review. "At an early age, learning traditional culture is important as the philosophy will be deeply rooted in children's hearts," she added.

With students aged mostly from 4 to 10, these old-style private institutes aim to expand children's exposure to traditional Chinese culture through introductions to Confucianism, Chinese calligraphy and traditional values. Learning Chinese classics is believed to be good for children's moral development and the cultivation of their character. Wisdom delivered through the classics can also help children deal with the challenges of life.

Xu's teacher Liu Junqi said that they are not conventional revivalists, but are constantly exploring the essence of classical culture and bringing forth new ideas from tradition.

"We not only allow children to achieve fruitful results in reading and writing, but also try to cultivate traditional virtues such as filial piety, fraternity, independence and tenacity," he said.

Xu and his classmates have mastered several ancient texts, including the Sanzijing, or the Three-Character Classic, a 13th-century text for children on Confucian philosophy, and the Qianziwen, or the Thousand-Character Classic, a text that has been used as a primer for teaching Chinese characters to children since the sixth century. They also study poetry, other classical texts and calligraphy.

"Learning traditional culture and ethics is not in conflict with the modern education system; rather, it supplements modern education," said Peng Jinshan, a professor at the Literature Institute of Northwest Normal University.

A couple wear hanfu for their wedding in Xingtai City, north China's Hebei Province, in February (XINHUA)

Popular among the public

Wu Yishu, a 17-year-old senior high school student from Shanghai, has become a pinup for many Chinese adults and children.

Wu emerged as the champion of the popular poetry recitation show Chinese Poetry Congress produced by China Central Television which was a big hit among domestic viewers. Her infectious charm has gone a long way to reigniting the public's appreciation for classical Chinese poetry.

"I admire her not only because she has memorized a large number of poems, but also because she has the ability to use them," said Jin Jing, a 30-year-old lawyer working in Beijing. "The show has enhanced my appreciation for the beauty of classical poetry and traditional culture."

Jin said that the stress of modern life can be offset by ancient poems, which can have a relaxing effect.

Apart from the revitalization of poems, wearing hanfu, the traditional dress of the ethnic Han people, has become popular, in some cases even being preferred by brides and grooms at wedding ceremonies.

Kang Wei, a student at the Southwest Petroleum University, wears hanfu for more than 300 days a year. "Costume is one of the bearers of our culture. Traditional culture will never be out of fashion," said Kang.

Kang also enjoys composing ancient poetry and playing the guzheng, also known as the Chinese zither, and weiqi, an abstract strategy board game invented in ancient China and known in English as Go, as well as practicing the tea ceremony.

"I am advocating a traditional lifestyle to make other people realize that wearing hanfu is helpful in finding a visible cultural symbol to show the country's uniqueness," he said.

Cultural confidence

In recent years, China has put an emphasis on promoting traditional culture.

In the fall semester of 2017, millions of Chinese primary or junior high school students received the latest versions of the Chinese-language textbooks. The textbooks attach more importance to traditional Chinese culture. The textbooks for three-year junior high schools have a large number of ancient articles and poems—132 in total—making up 51.7 percent of all the texts. Primary school books contain 129 ancient works, 30 percent of the total.

"China's impressive economic development has significantly raised the living standards of the Chinese people, but it has also given rise to imbalance. In such times, the revival of traditional culture will imbue society with the much-needed spirit of integrity, kindness and fair play," said Ye Zicheng, a professor with the School of International Studies of Peking University.

Copyedited by Francisco Little & Laurence Coulton

Comments to yanwei@bjreview.com 

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