BEIJING -- Holding an ink brush in her slender fingers, 12-year-old Sun Yuying leans over a sheet of paper and carefully copies a classic Chinese landscape painting of a roiling brook surrounded by cranes, boulders and pines. With each brush stroke, she brings the needles of a gnarled tree branch to life.
"I'm curious about ancient things," says Sun, who like many affluent Chinese girls her age spends the weekends in more modern pursuits such as roller skating and eating at Pizza Hut.
"I think it's fun," adds Sun's classmate and painting partner, Zhou Yiqing.
Deemed a hindrance to development and a factor in the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, the classic Confucian curriculum hasn't been taught in mainland schools for decades. In the past year, though, the father of Chinese thought has made a comeback at a new, private academy in the lush green hills on the outskirts of the capital.
In addition to regular classes in mathematics, English and computers, Sun, Zhou and 82 other students at the Shengtao Experimental School study a wide range of traditional disciplines, including Tang Dynasty poetry, Peking opera and calligraphy.
In the school's concrete courtyard, children wearing blue and pink uniforms with red neckerchiefs stab and kick the air with their fists and feet while practicing "Wushu," Chinese martial arts. Inside, fresh-faced, seven-year-olds recite texts stretching back to the Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 B.C.)
Shengtao charges about $1,800 for tuition, room and board, a hefty sum by Chinese standards. Since it opened last September, enrollment has more than doubled.
The school, which can accommodate up to 1,000 students, represents one side in a struggle for the cultural soul of the world's most populous country. Once largely closed to the outside world, China has rapidly adopted many elements of Western life, including Hollywood movies, fast food and market economics.
Some blame such foreign influences for a coarsening of life here and an increased emphasis on conspicuous consumption. Limited to one child by the nation's population-control policy, urban parents often shower their "Little Emperors" with gifts and food.
By reintroducing the ancient curriculum, the founders of Shengtao hope to bring back such Confucian values as modesty, selflessness and respect for authority.
"We feel the quality of some children is low because they are not taught traditional culture and their parents only take them to eat at McDonald's and visit Disney," says headmistress Liu Yinfang, 51. The old curriculum "teaches you a lot of theories on how to be a good person."
Shengtao, which is named for a famous Chinese educator and writer, has attracted parents with the promise of a moral education. It's an appealing option, given the spiritual vacuum left by the collapse of Communist ideology.
Zhou Yiqing's father, Zhou Ning, is an entrepreneur who works in the predatory world of Chinese business where embezzlement is common and lying reflexive. Unable to study during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) -- when Red Guards attacked the nation's ancient heritage -- Zhou wants to give his daughter the kind of education he never had.
"As my generation did not learn any virtues of the traditional culture, we have less politeness and morality," says Zhou, 40, who co-owns a roller rink.
"If everyone had followed the thoughts of Confucius, society would be much better now," adds Xia Yu, a 35-year-old private businessman and Shengtao parent.
In a classroom about 30 children sit, trying to grasp those very thoughts. The subject is "Great Learning," an ancient philosophical text written by one of Confucius' students, Zhengzi.
Once taught throughout China, "Great Learning" instructs people on everything from self-cultivation and building a harmonious home life to the search for world peace.
With their feet flat on the floor, the children chant from memory or read from computer printouts through heavy-lidded eyes. "Great Learning" is more than 2,000 years old -- so old in fact that teachers have to write out some of the characters by hand because they no longer exist in modern Chinese.
At the end of the recitation, Jiang Shan, a seven-year-old girl with a page-boy haircut, is asked what it all meant. She looks at her teacher, then at headmistress Liu.
Liu, however, is of little help. She doesn't know either.
Conforming to Confucian tradition, the students will learn the text's meaning in later years, the headmistress says.
One of the great criticisms of the traditional Chinese curriculum -- and the current one as well -- is that it emphasizes memorization while discouraging critical thinking and imagination. Most schools simply teach students to pass the national college entrance exams using uniform answers and essays.
While the Chinese intellectuals behind the Shengtao's founding are trying to improve the country by reaching into its past, education professors such as Wang Furen think reform must come by freeing students' minds.
Under the current system, Wang argues, students must learn to make their own decisions, especially in a society that no longer guarantees them a job for life, or an "Iron Rice Bowl."
"My guiding principle is to teach them to master the ability to express their own opinions," says Wang, who teaches at Beijing Normal University and is working with other educators in hopes of reforming the national curriculum. "We can't go back to the Confucian education system."
The administrators at Shengtao hope that by blending modern courses with ancient ones, they can prepare Chinese students for the next century while preserving the rich heritage of those past. They are counting on kids like Zhang Yao, a 12-year-old boy from the nearby port city of Tianjin.
Zhang, whose father has a lucrative job with a state-owned oil and gas company, says he would like to teach ancient Chinese culture when he grows up.
"If we don't study it, we'll lose it," says Zhang, as he gazes across a Chinese landscape he is painting. "When we go out, we cannot show others our history and everyone will forget."
Pub Date: 6/20/99