Children in scholars hats bow before a statue of Confucius, the Chinese sage once reviled by Communist authorities but now enjoying a revival as parents look to instil his values in their offspring.
With central government backing, hundreds of private schools dedicated to Confucian teachings have sprung up across the country in response to growing demand for more traditional education.
At a new institution in the central city of Wuhan, about 30 students aged two to six chant: “Our respect to you, Master Confucius. Thank you for the kindness of your teaching and your compassion”.
Five-year-old Zhu Baichang admits he does not understand all the maxims he enthusiastically recites, but says: “It’s very interesting.”
Opened in 2015, the school has around 160 students whose parents fork out 7,000 yuan (US$1,000) a term in the hope their children will absorb Confucius’ ideas on filial piety and integrity.
“We don’t understand everything when he recites the classics,” said Baichang’s father Zhu Minghui, but added that the principles that have “guided China for 2,000 years” were “seeping into his bones”.
Teapots for girls
The teachings of Confucius (551-479 BC) demand respect for tradition and elders to ensure harmony in a rigidly hierarchical society, and were the official ideology of imperial China.
At the schools students start learning them by heart from a young age.
“Between two and six years of age the capacity for memorisation is excellent” so “we plant the seeds of filial piety, respect for teachers and compassion,” the director of the Wuhan school, surnamed Shi.
By six, she says, her charges “have already finished reciting the great Confucius classics” — which contain several hundred thousand characters.
Recreational activities are also traditional: the boys learn Chinese chess while the girls perform tea ceremonies in the classroom next door.
The school and the organisation that runs it are named after the Dizigui, a 17th century textbook based on Confucian teachings that promotes blind obedience to parents and the elderly, and which is part of the curriculum.
Even a student’s own birthday can be turned into a lesson in filial piety.
“Remember this was the day your mother suffered greatly by giving birth to you — it was painful,” the teacher told a contrite boy, who knelt before his grandmother to express his devotion.
But after children turn six, when state schooling begins, most parents enrol them in official primary schools.
While Confucian schools are still very much on the fringe of China’s education system their popularity is growing among middle class parents wanting a traditional education for their children.
The China Confucius Foundation had about 300 such institutions at the start of last year, compared with 223,700 ordinary kindergartens, but had plans to open another 700.
Another Confucian organisation, Tongxueguan, opened its first weekend school in 2006 and now has more than 120 such establishments across the country, with about 40,000 students.
“After economic prosperity, Chinese feel the need for a return to their roots. They also need spiritual elevation,” its founder Li Guangbin told AFP.
Reciting texts and attending moral classes might not inspire creativity in children, but Li said it was more important for them to “understand what makes a man, righteousness, social interaction”.
Mei Yuan, whose daughter attends a Tongxueguan school, says its teaching counters the downsides of modern life: “Today’s children are selfish, too individualistic, and society gives them a frivolous mind.”
‘Lack of moral guidance’
After coming to power in 1949, the Communist Party violently denounced the patriarchal and paralysing hold of Confucianism and its proponents became a target during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.
But the political climate has changed radically in recent years: President Xi Jinping readily quotes the philosopher and has included Confucian teachings in government propaganda.
“This government is fearful of Western influences coming into the country, especially democracy, human rights,” said Michael Schuman, Beijing-based author of the book Confucius and the World he Created.
“They feel that Chinese traditional culture can act as bulwark against these foreign ideas, in ways which support the current political system,” he told AFP.
At the same time, he said, Chinese people were “looking for something more in their lives”.
“They think that Chinese society has become very wealthy, but at the same time is missing something spiritual, and they feel a lot of the problems China is facing right now — corruption and environmental damage — are result of a lack of moral guidance.”
But Confucian ideals do not sit easily with some realities of China today.
The sage “actively encourages debate” and “his disciples had to forge their own ideas”, which contradict the rote learning system used in Chinese schools, Schuman notes.
He also insisted on reciprocity of obligation, so that leaders owed their subjects good governance, and if they failed to deliver they could lose the “mandate of Heaven” — which would justify an uprising against them.
“The government needs the Confucian traditions to maintain stability, increase the happiness of people, so that they accept their lot without complaint,” Li says.