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Inventing an Individualized Approach to Memorization: Debates, Reforms, and Contradictions

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Abstract

This chapter, along with the next Chap. 5, presents the specific narratives and practices of teaching and learning the classics in everyday school life at Yiqian School. The current chapter focuses on pedagogical individualization, a process that has resulted in debates over dujing (reading the classics) and educational reforms toward the individualized approach to memorizing Confucian classics inside the school. It thereby lays an intellectual foundation for the pedagogical activities described in the next chapter. The chapter begins by reviewing two early debates over dujing in modern Chinese history—one in the 1930s and one in the 2000s—to build up a historical background to the contemporary debate. It then describes the contemporary and ongoing debate over dujing, revealing three controversial issues: the relationship between educational principles and methods, historical legitimacy, and linguistic Chineseness. This recent debate over dujing has had a direct impact on Yiqian School and encouraged it to implement a set of pedagogical reforms toward a method of individualized memorization of the classics under the name of “Confucianism.” Notably, the invented pedagogy of individualized memorization combines two paradoxical knowledge sources of Confucian education: the individualized teaching principle and the method of extensive and repetitive memorization of the classics. The self-contradiction of this hybrid approach is revealed in the actual teaching activities at Yiqian School.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In the following sections, I use the pinyin “sishu” as the Chinese abbreviation of “old-style small private schools” for the sake of conciseness.

  2. 2.

    In December 1915, Yuan declared himself to be the emperor and changed the title of the state to “Chinese Empire” (Zhonghua diguo 中华帝国). However, all other parties rapidly raised strong opposition to him. Consequently, only 83 days later, Yuan was forced to step down, signifying the failure to restore the monarchy.

  3. 3.

    Billioud and Thoraval (2015: 33–34, 181–182) pointed out that the changing political circumstances also generated new attempts to use Confucianism as a tool of social and ideological control. One typical example is the New Life Movement (Xin shenghuo yundong), which was launched by the Nanjing nationalist government in 1934, with the primary aim of cultivating behavioral standards and civic responsibility among citizens through the reappropriation of traditional Chinese moral values. They indicated that the broad debate on dujing in 1934 should be observed within the context of the New Life Movement.

  4. 4.

    Billioud and Thoraval (2015: 33–34) presented a more detailed introduction to both positions in the 1934 debate.

  5. 5.

    I put the two terms in quotation marks because, as I will show in the following analysis, so-called Chinese or Confucian education is more of an assertion or imagination of identity than an objective reality.

  6. 6.

    Admittedly, ancient “Chinese” education cannot be equated with “Confucian” education, as the former also includes pedagogies of Taoism and Buddhism, which corresponds to the fact that Chinese culture comprises not only Confucianism but also Taoism and Buddhism. However, I do not see disputants show explicit intention to differentiate between “Chinese” and “Confucian” education in their narratives.

  7. 7.

    Interestingly, this term was frequently used by many practitioners of Confucian classical education to describe what they are doing, implying that this movement of dujing education is still in development and far from reaching a final verdict.

  8. 8.

    However, this educational reform resulted in shrinking the student population of sishu. Also, it is one direct reason for what Nanfang zhoumo reported in 2014, as mentioned earlier (see Zhang 2014).

  9. 9.

    Interviews in June 2015. Unless otherwise specified, all information regarding Mr. Chen comes from multiple interviews in June 2015 at his classical school.

  10. 10.

    Interview on 5th June 2015.

  11. 11.

    Interview on 5th June 2015.

  12. 12.

    Interview on 6th June 2015.

  13. 13.

    Despite the literal translation of “one teacher on one student,” the conceptualization of yiduiyi does not entail assigning one teacher to each student. Instead, teachers are supposed to differentiate and customize their educational content and methods according to each student’s natural ability. Mr. Chen and his Confucian school viewed this method as a pedagogical invention in concert with the principle of yincai shijiao (teaching students in accordance with their aptitude).

  14. 14.

    Interview on 5th June 2015.

  15. 15.

    This refers to Caigui Wang, as he was an associate professor when he retired from the National Taichung University of Education. Mr. Chen seldom called him by name during interviews but instead addressed him as “Professor Wang,” which shows respect for him.

  16. 16.

    Interview on 5th June 2015.

  17. 17.

    Caigui Wang (2010) indicated that the double ten method was not required for everyone but served to strengthen the educational idea that the more classics one read, the more moral enhancement one would receive.

  18. 18.

    Interview on 7th June 2015.

  19. 19.

    Interview on 7th June 2015.

  20. 20.

    Interview on 6th June 2015.

  21. 21.

    Interview on 7th June 2015.

  22. 22.

    Professor Xu and his research team spent several years interviewing about 1000 elderly people all over China who once studied in sishu when they were young. This study allows him to suggest that nowadays, the so-called du (reading) is actually singing in ancient China. Following this, he argued that ancient Chinese scholars did not read the classics in a flat tone but sang them.

  23. 23.

    Interview on 7th June 2015.

  24. 24.

    Interview on 7th June 2015.

  25. 25.

    Interview on 7th June 2015.

  26. 26.

    When I first visited Mr. Chen’s school in 2012, the school was applying a method of “memorizing an entire book” (baoben) to maximize students’ faculty of memory, which meant requiring students to read and recite an entire classic book such as The Analects within a given period. Following this method, students were often forced to achieve the aim of baoben, which generated much pressure. The next section is to display details about this approach as part of the Confucian school’s pedagogical reform.

  27. 27.

    Interview on 7th June 2015.

  28. 28.

    Interview on 7th June 2015.

  29. 29.

    Interview on 7th June 2015.

  30. 30.

    Interview on 7th June 2015.

  31. 31.

    Interview on 7th June 2015.

  32. 32.

    Interview in June 2015.

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Wang, C. (2023). Inventing an Individualized Approach to Memorization: Debates, Reforms, and Contradictions. In: Cultivating the Confucian Individual. Palgrave Studies on Chinese Education in a Global Perspective. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-27669-9_4

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