HONG KONG — On Jan. 1, scores of children assembled to read aloud, in near perfect synchronicity, a 17th-century Confucian text called Dizigui, which translates to "standards for being a good student and child." The performance, according to local newspaper Beijing Times, was laden with symbolism: It took place at the historic Imperial Academy in central Beijing, which has been a center of Confucian learning for hundreds of years, and the children wore hanfu, a style of traditional clothing said to be similar to those donned more than 2,500 years ago in the days of Confucius.
It’s part of a changing reception for Confucian classics, which Chinese schools and education authorities had largely abandoned since the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 in favor of more modern curricula like math, science, and colloquial Chinese. But these days, Dizigui’s short and simple brand of Confucianism — a way of thinking that has always included a heavy dose of respect for family and social hierarchy — has even the ruling Communist Party on its side.
The 1,080-character Dizigui, authored by a Qing-dynasty scholar named Li Yuxiu and short enough to fit into a small pamphlet, began to re-emerge in Chinese society more than a decade ago on the back of an educational movement, called Dujing, that seeks to teach the Confucian canon to children. The movement’s adherents believe that memorization of classics will help transform China’s generation of infamously spoiled single children, often called "little emperors," into more dutiful ones — and in time, morally upright adults. The text has found a ready set of fans among modern Chinese parents, many of them concerned that contemporary social ills trace back to an abandonment of traditional values, and are thus anxious to provide their children with a moral compass in a fast-changing society.
Even compared to other classic Chinese works written for children, Dizigui is austere. It evinces a singular focus on the Confucian code of conduct, generating advice such as this: "When my parents do wrong, I will urge them to change. I will do it with a kind facial expression and a warm, gentle voice. If they do not accept my advice, I will wait until they are in a happier mood before I attempt to dissuade them again, followed by crying, if necessary, to make them understand.
"If they end up whipping me I will not hold a grudge against them."
Given the text’s emphasis on obedience, it’s not hard to understand why the ruling Communist Party has come to embrace Dizigui in spite of its tumultuous relationship with Confucianism. (During the Cultural Revolution, a violent and turbulent period from 1966 to 1976 aimed at stamping out vestiges of Chinese "feudal" culture, Mao Zedong fiercely denounced the Confucian belief system.) But by 2009, Xi Jinping, then expected to be China’s next president, specifically named the text as recommended reading for party cadres. A professor at the Central Communist Party School, which trains Chinese officials, wrote a book called Everybody Should Study Dizigui, and party organizations in far-flung corners of the country have convened study sessions on the text.
It’s also had an impact on some bottom lines. Corporate bosses have claimed that building a corporate culture based on Dizigui increased productivity and profitability. The chief of a Chinese company making electronic components has actively promoted the text in his factory, telling the magazine Chinese Times in 2010 that managers who read Dizigui are more responsible, and the workers more grateful. Hu Xiaolin, the CEO of a Beijing-based boilermaker, said that he communicated better with employees after studying the document. Hu "used to have a brusque management style," according to an article in Chinese business magazine World Manager, until the Confucian text "made him reflect."
Many Chinese, however, aren’t pleased by the newfound popularity of this ancient wisdom. To them, the increasing popularity of Dizigui feels like a throwback to a darker age when education encouraged conformity and suppressed free thought; not exactly the best way to prepare children for a 21st-century knowledge economy.
When, in Aug. 2013, Guangzhou’s prestigious Sun Yet-Sen University required freshmen to submit a summer essay reflecting on the text, the move drew sharp criticism from some teaching staff and Internet users who saw the requirement as a repudiation of modern educational values like creativity and skepticism. And after the Jan. 1 children’s reading in Beijing, screenwriter Zheng Xiaochong commented on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, that the text "is a part of a zombie culture with no ability to innovate." Another Weibo user argued that it was effective — but only "for training slaves."
That may be too tendentious. Most of Dizigui brims with universal adages like, "If criticism makes me angry and compliments make me happy, bad company will come my way and good friends will shy away." That’s actually part of its attraction to those in power: Few can object to its anodyne moral lessons, but hidden within them is a code of conduct that emphasizes acceptance of strict hierarchy, respect for social order, and deference to authority. For more than 2,000 years, Chinese emperors have found Confucianism a useful tool for authoritarian governance. Now they seem keen to try again.
Rachel Lu is the co-founder of Foreign Policy’s Tea Leaf Nation and is an editor at FP.