Traditional Chinese Culture: The Art of Teaching in Ancient China Pt1

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Formal education in ancient China was largely based on Confucianism. When Confucius gave lectures at Xingtan (literally translated as Apricot Altar), he had 3,000 students.

Confucianism is said to be based on Confucius’ lectures and these serve as the origin of the Confucian approach to teaching.

The teaching Confucius. Portrait by Wu Daozi, 685-758, Tang Dynasty. (Wikimedia Commons.)

Dong Zhongshu (179 B.C. – 104 B.C.), an influential imperial scholar during the Han Dynasty, widely promoted Confucianism over all other ideologies, thus Confucianism was the dominant ideology at the time.

During the Sui (580 – 618) and Tang (618 – 907) Dynasties, the imperial examination system which emphasized the study of Confucianism, gradually brought it to its peak, and its influence on classical Chinese education lasted centuries.

As the core of its formal teaching method, Confucian ideology is a comprehensive system of thoughts covering broad aspects of social and spiritual life in ancient times. In “The Great Learning,” Confucius wrote, “Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy.”

Educated under such philosophy, ancient Chinese people placed emphasis on cultivating one’s morality, nurturing one’s nobility of character and respecting the heaven and the earth. One accepted that lives follow predestined paths and that by cultivating one’s moral character one eventually reaches blissful peace of mind as well as a healthy outlook towards this earthly life, the divine, and social values.

The root of Confucianism consists of “benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, faithfulness.” Many virtues, such as loyalty, filial piety, bravery, fairness, transparency, righteousness, diligence, etc. are derived from it. Confucianism effectively regulated all strata of ancient Chinese society, and defined the moral values and standards for being a good person.

Benevolence and propriety are the core values of Confucianism. By maintaining a mind-set of benevolence, people were naturally righteous. Without propriety, there would be no faithfulness or loyalty. Without faithfulness, nothing can be established.

Traditional Chinese culture is deeply rooted in Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Confucianism focused on “entering the mundane world,” while Buddhism and Taoism focused on “transcending the mundane world.” Because it directly interacted with everyday society, Confucianism has the largest impact on human society, or the mundane world.

In ancient China, the Confucian approach to teaching was very effective because it not only shaped many highly accomplished individuals, but also played an instrumental role in maintaining societal stability and propelling economic and cultural advancement. Without the Confucian approach to teaching, Chinese history would not have had the splendid Tang Dynasty or the exquisite Song Dynasty or the colourful Ming and Qing Dynasty. That is to say, the traditional Chinese culture would not have existed if not for its Confucian platform.

During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220) and Jin Dynasty (265 – 420), the imperial examination system was not yet established, yet there was a recommendation system to nominate well-educated people from good backgrounds to fill important governing roles. Those people were usually from rich and influential families. However, if a person was not well-educated, no matter what his family status was, he could not be recommended.

Established during the Sui and Tang Dynasty, the imperial examination system gave the general public an equal chance to enter a governing role. Many well-educated people with humble backgrounds obtained high ranking governing posts. Many stories of successful people “starting from the bottom” are still being told today.

Even though the ones who came up on top are a minority, those educated under the same ideology took up important roles within society. As a whole, the educated were highly respected and were the main building blocks of Chinese society.

Some of them started schools; some of them offered strategic advice to the rulers; some of them practised medicine; some of them became artists. In ancient China, the educated strata of society had a huge impact on that society through their thoughts and deeds. Their value system was instrumental in maintaining stability.

Another unique characteristic of ancient Chinese methods of teaching is that the main text books did not change for thousands of years. No matter how the dynasties changed, the classics remained the same.

Dynasties and societies may change, but the Tao will never change. This is why Confucianism lasted for thousands of years. No matter which dynasty one was born into, one would always receive the same education guided by the same orthodox ideals.

The classic texts are the essence of traditional Chinese culture. People started studying them at a very young age. Many people were able to recite verses from “The Great Learning,” “Doctrine of the Mean,” “The Analects of Confucius” and “The Book of Odes.”

However, in modern-day China the majority of undergraduate and graduate school students have lost their connection to these books which are an integral part of their heritage.

In ancient China, the goal of education was to know the Tao of being, of being human. This foundation provided righteous guidance throughout one’s life, and one would enlighten to the Tao at a deeper level through practising the Tao in everyday life.

However, in the world today education is merely the accumulation of skills and textbook doctrines.

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