Rural Confucianism

By Li Jingjing in Jining Source:Global Times Published: 2014-10-16 19:23:01

Scholars turn to ancient philosophy to solve social woes of villages

Professor Yan Binggang (right) holds a class for students in a village in Sishui county, Shandong Province. Photo: Li Jingjing/GT

In the small village of Beidongye, in East China's Shandong Province, something is changing. The secretary of the Party branch of this village, Pang Dehai said that a woman who used to yell at her mother-in-law in public has suddenly learned respect for her, buying her new clothes and taking care of housework for her.

Theft is also down. During the autumn harvest season, several women used to carry their tools and pretend they were working while in fact they were secretly stealing sweet potatoes and peanuts from other people's fields. However, these incidents have been on the decrease since mid-2013.

 "It's much easier to manage the village now," said Pang.

According to Pang, the reason the ethical situation in village has been improving lies with some classes that the villagers have been taking. The subject? - Confucianism.

Eighty years ago, the late Chinese ideologist and sinologist Liang Suming used to pointed out that two of the challenges that Chinese villages face as they move into the modern age are damage to moral standards and cultural dissonance. As it turns out, this sharp observation has proven to be true over these years.

Younger people disrespecting their elders, abominable neighborhood relationships, people who head off to school or work end up never coming back to the village, scattered garbage and a deteriorating environment are among the many problems that exist in rural villages.

To try and combat this situation a group of scholars specializing in Confucianism have decided to see what they can do to change this situation.

Back to the origin

On Nishan Mountain in Sishui, Shandong Province, several hundreds meters away from the Fuzidong cave where, according to legend, the philosopher Confucius was born in 551 BC, lies the grand Nishan Shengyuan Academy. Founded by scholars and community leaders from both home and abroad and supported by the local government, the academy has been researching Confucianism since 2008. 

As one of the academy's founders, professor Yan Binggang, vice-director of Shandong University's Advanced Institute for Confucian Studies, explained to the Global Times: "Nishan is the birthplace of Confucius, the origin of Confucianism. By building an academy here, we aim to return Confucianism to what it once was and find inspiration to revitalize it."

The minds behind this academy have carried out a "rural Confucianism" project in three villages in Sishui since the beginning of 2013.

Their hope is to reestablish an ethical order and cultural ecology through the Confucian doctrine of filial piety and the five relationships - the relationship between ruler and subject, father and son, elder sibling and younger sibling, husband and wife, and friend and friend.

Harmonious relationships

"In the beginning we mainly taught Dizigui (Standards for Being a Good Pupil and Child, a children's primer written approximately 300 years ago that outlines basic Confucian values and guidelines), and told stories of good people and good deeds. Everyone was very accepting," explained volunteer teacher Qian Yuzhen, a retired teacher from the College for Elderly Education in Sishui. The idea of filial piety was the crux of most of the classes she gave. However they also provide performances featuring traditional local styles of singing and performing. 

Most of the students attending the classes were senior citizens and children, as the three villages are like most rural villages, where most young villagers choose to become migrant workers that head far away from home and basically only the very young and very old are left behind. However, Qian remains positive, as he believes that these classes are still beneficial to both generations. Children learn to respect their elders while they are still young, while their elders learn how to properly educate children without spoiling them. Meanwhile, Qian also works to help senior citizens understand the behavior of their adult children who have chosen to leave the village in search of work.

A 58-year-old villager named Pang Yumin said his personal take away from the class is how the relationship between brothers can end up giving added stress to parents if things fall out of harmony. "I have several brothers. Due to some financial issues we never used to talk to each other, even when meeting face to face. But after studying the Dizigui, we came to an understanding and now have a better relationship. Our parents are happier too."

Professor Yan said the biggest challenge to promoting Confucianism in villages is that some villagers weren't taking things seriously. For instance, although he always emphasizes that students need to bring their textbooks, there will always be some students who don't. Some even ended up giving away their textbooks to friends or relatives as a gift because they found Dizigui to be good.

But what about those who work outside the village? After all they too are an important component of village society, even if they are far away most of the time.

"For migrant workers in other places, we plan to hold lectures and performances for them during the holidays, when most come back. We want all three generations to interact with each other," explained Qian.


All lectures are free to villagers. All staff, including teachers, are also volunteers. "We are not here for money, we sincerely believe that we are doing something good," said Qian.

When the program first started, lectures were held every two weeks. However, as time went on and the program attracted more people, lectures began to be held once or even several times a week.

As the program has gotten larger, finding qualified volunteers has become an issue. Yan explained that he feels the best solution would be to have specialists and scholars train local teachers and retired teachers. As for teaching material, he feels that students are more than capable of handling other Confucian classics.

Additionally, in order to encourage  students to learn on their own, he has suggested that every village have a lecture hall equipped with basic audio and video equipment that villagers can use to learn on their own.

"The study of Confucianism in villages, teaching materials and methods of teaching, should be organized into a system for planned study," Yan said.


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