Mindless obedience

Source: Global Times (2/9/17)
Plans to teach Qing Dynasty book sparks fight over culture and obedience
By Zhao Yusha

Primary students wear traditional Chinese costume during their school's open day on September 1, 2016 in Xuchang, Central China's Henan Province. Photo: IC

Primary students wear traditional Chinese costume during their school’s open day on September 1, 2016 in Xuchang, Central China’s Henan Province. Photo: IC

Central government plans to make students around the country study a book which encourages the reader to always listen to their parents and teachers have sparked controversy, with some experts saying that the book will simply “teach people to be obedient.”

The State Council, China’s cabinet, issued guidelines in January which said that by 2025 major achievements should be made in traditional culture-related research, education, protection, inheritance, innovation and exchanges. The international influence of Chinese culture should see a “marked boost,” said the guideline.

One part of the guideline says that the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) book Di Zi Gui [弟子規] (students’ rules) should be included in the curriculum of elementary schools. The book, which contains only 360 sentences, explains how to be a good student and child, and tells readers to follow a traditional Confucian moral code.

It says that “when my parents instruct me, I will listen respectfully. When my parents scold me, I must accept and obey them.”

Mindless obedience

Di Zi Gui exaggerates the concept of “obedience” because it tells youngsters to obey their parents and teachers unquestioningly, said Xu Fanchi, an expert at the Nanshe Traditional Culture Research Institute in Suzhou, East China’s Jiangsu Province.

Xu said the book is used by pyramid schemes to brainwash members. April 2016, police in Hefei, capital of East China’s Anhui Province arrested members of a local pyramid scheme, and found every member had a copy of Di Zi Gui, the Hefei Evening News reported.

“The spirit of pyramid schemes is unconditional obedience to people at the higher level, which is in accordance with the ideas of Di Zi Gui,” a pyramid scheme member surnamed Zhang told the Hefei Evening News.

However the book has already gained popularity in schools across China in recent years despite this criticism.

Some 20 schools in Chengdu, capital of Southwest China’s Sichuan Province required students to read the book in 2015, some schools even holding exams on the work, local newspaper the Chengdu Evening News reported.

In 2015, a private school in Shanghai asked over 750 students to recite passages from Di Zi Gui at a ceremony and follow the host in putting on clothes resembling those worn during the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) while reciting Confucian classics which describe an “ideal world,” according to the school.

In May 2015, 28 students in Jiangmen, South China’s Guangzhou Province kneeled down in front of their parents and washed their feet as part of an activity to learn from Di Zi Gui, local newspaper the Jiangmen Daily reported.

However Xu said that true filial piety cannot be learned from a one-time activity, “it’s a habit that develops over the years and should be taught by the parents’ own example.”

Xu said that apart from the misleading ideas some learn from Di Zi Gui, few teachers are likely to be able to teach students about the book well. Some sayings are ambiguous and difficult to understand, said Xu, adding that the students are unlikely to grasp its essence without proper instruction.

Zhang Jian, chief of the task force group of China’s Ministry of Education, echoed these concerns. He told the Xinhua News Agency in January that many people misunderstand the book, including experts.

Some scholars say the book is wrong when it asks children to taste their parent’s medicine when they are sick, as healthy people should not take medicine, said Zhang.

“But the book’s actual meaning is that they should check whether the medicine is too hot for their parents,” said Zhang.

Essence of culture

However, Zhang Guoyun, headmaster of Tianjiabing Middle School, Chengdu, was quoted by the Chengdu Evening News as saying that Di Zi Gui can help built students’ patriotism, concern for society and personality.

Ren Dengdi, dean of the Chinese culture department at Beijing Mingyuan University, told the Global Times that although Di Zi Gui may go against “critical thinking,” which is encouraged in the West, it is the essence of Chinese culture.

“This book stresses the continuation of Chinese society by asking people to build a good relationship with their parents and teachers,” said Ren, adding that it also helps to maintain the power of the country’s rulers and the social order.

Western culture, which values individuality, doesn’t fit Chinese society, said Ren, adding that as students nowadays receive more Western-style education it is necessary to popularize books such as Di Zi Gui.

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