As hundreds of millions of Chinese pupils headed back to school for a new semester on Thursday, a handful of children in an old-fashioned private school in China’s southern island province of Hainan met with an alternative to modern traditional schooling.

No quizzes and no homework. Instead, these children focus on reciting and memorizing Chinese literary masterpieces from thinkers and philosophers like Confucius and Mencius.

Fu Yaqing, 7, is one of seven children attending the private Confucius School to receive an old-fashioned education, radically different from her peers.

Waking as early as 5:30 every morning, Fu and her classmates begin their day by paying tribute to Confucius, standing in a line and bowing three times in front of a picture of the acclaimed philosopher who lived about 2,500 years ago.

The kids are also asked to express gratitude to their parents, teachers and classmates before every meal.

Their daily tasks include reciting and memorizing classic literary works, including "The Four Books of Confucianism": "The Analects of Confucius"; "The Book of Mencius"; "The Great Learning"; "The Doctrine of the Mean."

Although most of the students barely know a word of English, they are also asked to recite, but not to learn, some Shakespearean works, such as "A Midsummer Night’s Dream."

No other subjects, including mathematics and science, are taught in this school except for calligraphy and physical education.

Fu’s mother Zhou Xiaoyun, an avid fan of the Chinese classics, said it is a waste of time for her child to spend six years in an ordinary school studying subjects that are too simple.

"Kids of this age have the best memories, and memorization of Chinese classical literary works will influence their future lives, even though they don’t understand the exact meaning of these works," Zhou said. 
  

RATIONAL RETROGRESSION?
 
Tian Guiliang, the founder of the private boarding school, said he originally hoped to educate his two children in an old-fashioned way.

In March 2010, he established the Confucius School to cater to the needs of more like-minded parents.

There are six teachers looking after three classes in the school — one for students under the age of seven, another for students between seven and 13, and the third class is specifically for those who have great potential or talent.

Tian said the old-fashioned education style focusing on recitation has a scientific basis because children under the age of 13 are in the golden stage for memorization.

"Through reciting classic works of literature, their potential will be explored while the moral principles will be planted deep in their minds," Tian said.

"The children cannot fully understand what they recite now. But as they grow up, they will gradually comprehend," he added.

Tian’s theory is endorsed and supported by Zhou, who thinks that the modern education system only feeds children the simplest knowledge in the most complicated and arduous ways.

Third-grader Chen Shihan terminated his study at a primary school in Guangdong Province three months ago and moved here.

"There used to be endless homework from my previous school and, sometimes, I had to stay up until midnight, dozing the next day for lack of sleep," Chen said.

"My parents said I’ve made remarkable progress after moving here," he said. 
 
RISKY RETROGRESSION?

Private schools of this kind are not unusual in other cities around the country. In the mountainous suburbs of Beijing, there are about 10 private schools that focus on providing a classic Chinese literary education.

These schools are generally expensive, targeting well-off middle- and upper-class families.

It costs 30,000 yuan (4,687 U.S. dollars) a year to enroll a student in the Confucius School in Hainan, which is about three times as much as an ordinary boarding school.

Experts, however, argue that replacing modern education with an imitation of an older style is too risky.

Yang Junlong, a psychologist in Hainan, said children in modern society need to acquire comprehensive and suitable knowledge.

"These kids will face a knowledge gap if they are not taught subjects like English and mathematics, and they will have difficulty adapting themselves to an ordinary school to further their study," Yang said.

Yang’s concern is dismissed by Tian and Zhou, both of whom believe that the students who receive an old-fashioned education will easily obtain the other knowledge and soon catch up to or surpass their peers.

Zhong Dongmei, a professor of classical Chinese literature at Hainan University, said the popularity of old-style private schools should force educators to analyze the shortcomings of modern education and make improvements and adjustments.

She, however, insists that substituting a modern primary school education with the recitation of ancient literary works is radical and unnecessary.

"An education in the works of classical literature is only part of an education. It should not be all," Zhong said.

Lin Mingju, a policy and regulation director at the Education Department of Hainan, said the Confucius School is registered as a training institution.

"Full-time education in the form of schooling is beyond its authorized business scope and it is illegal," Lin said.

"Parents of school-age children have the obligation to send their kids to legal schools to receive nine-years of compulsory education in line with Chinese education laws," Lin added.

  
 
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