Confucian revival and the hybrid educational narratives in contemporary China: A critical rethinking of scale in globalisation and education

Research Highlighted:

Wu, Jinting. (2019). Confucian revival and the hybrid educational narratives in contemporary China: A critical rethinking of scale in globalisation and education. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 17(4), 474-488.

Dr Jinting Wu, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York

Today China witnesses a renaissance of classical studies and Confucian Academies across the nation. With an estimated 10 million children attending Confucian kindergartens, classes, and schools, cultural heritage has increasingly become a new marker of social distinction. Meanwhile, Confucian tradition is often associated with excessive testing, competition, and academic burdens that continue to hinder China’s educational innovation. In this paper, I attempt to examine such hybrid educational narratives to understand the idiosyncratic features of Chinese educational globalisation. This paper also problematises the dominant hierarchical conception of scale in comparative education research and rethinks globalisation as a comingling and friction of multiple imagined communities.

Throughout China’s dynastic and modern history, the shifting narratives of Confucian doctrine have always corresponded with China’s changing educational paradigms. The first period occurred in the late Qing dynasty when the Ti-Yong debates upheld Chinese classical learning as the essence (Ti) and denigrated Western learning as mere utility (Yong). The second period occurred in the May Fourth Movement in 1919 when intellectual elites radically rejected traditional values and promoted the Western utilitarian approach to education, resulting in an overall suppression of Confucianism and classical texts in the educational system (Pepper 2000, 61). The third major change took place during the communist rule when China adopted the Soviet model to educate citizens as both ideologically correct and technically savvy (you hong you zhuan), leading to the branding of Confucian teaching as feudalist and antirevolutionary. The fourth major change was at the turn of the twenty-first century when the structural subordination of students to teachers and test-based curricula in state schools have been identified as setbacks to Chinese educational competitiveness. Curriculum reformers turned to the Anglo-American child-centred pedagogies as a critique of Confucian rote learning and inscription of social hierarchy. While Confucian pedagogical practices are challenged, curiously, today’s China also witnesses the ‘rehabilitation’ of the ancient sage and the all-out search for classical wisdom, a cultural and educational movement involving people from diverse backgrounds and facilitated by mass media, the market, the state, and the academia.

The newest wave of Confucian revival coincides with the tightening of the state grip in post-reform China. The state becomes a tireless champion of ancient classics in its strive for modernity, which can be seen in a number of public commentaries made by President Xi Jinping, deploring the de-Sinicisation of school curricula and promoting Confucian legacy as the ‘cultural gene of the Chinese nation.’ While the current Confucian revival is aptly seen as a form of state governing and social control, ordinary people also actively appropriate Confucian teachings to orient themselves in China’s dizzying socioeconomimc dislocation. 

A media studies professor, Yu Dan offered popular interpretation of The Analects (lunyu) in China Central Television’s popular program Lecture Room (baijia jiangtan), and enjoyed immense popularity among ordinary Chinese citizens who are hungry for existential guidance to navigate the whirlpool of socioeconomic changes. Additionally, scholars also aid the Confucian revival movement by offering national studies classes (guoxueban) to business entrepreneurs in leading universities. These classes appeal to businesspersons who seem to aspire for a model of the ‘Confucian enterpreneur’ (ru shang) by translating their material wealth into ‘cultured’ social distinction (Wu and Wenning 2016, 563). Meanwhile, there are many Confucian academies and classics chanting programs that appeal to parents who are disillusioned with the exam-centred educational system and look to alternatives in the hope to provide a more human, nurturing learning environment. While Western progressive educational philosophies are widely sought after by urban parents, on the other hand, the learning of traditional Chinese culture and values has also undergone a boom in recent decades (Pang 2014). A growing number of middle-class children attended private Confucian academies alongside mainstream schools, which, occupying a growing market niche and often charging substantial fees, teach the young recruits proper filial behaviours, a balanced and healthy living style, and cultural literacy through activities such as calligraphy, martial arts, tea ceremony, and chanting classics (Yu 2016). Classical learing in Confucian academies offers one of the latest educational models through which parents explore alternative pathways to cultivate high suzhi of the child, defined as cosmopolitan, mobile, creative, and knowledgeable in the global neoliberal economy.

The revival of Confucianism presents a cultural-educational lens to understand Chinese nationalism and globalisation. As China continues to grow economically and looks inward to take stock of its own cultural heritage, Confucian teachings re-entered to parry the Western cultural influence. The concept of guoxue re (the craze of national studies) captures a distinct form of nationalism in today’s China. It is hybrid moment of cultivating world citizens with Chinese hearts, and can be interpreted as a collective form of cultural intimacy, described by Herzfeld (1997) as the larger concerns of the nation-state intertwining with the everyday desires of its citizens to form a curious space comprehensible only with an insider’s sensitivity. The popular vision of foreign superiority and Chinese backwardness has been retooled by an orientation towards a greater understanding of China’s cultural distinctiveness and the dual needs for Sinicisation and globalisation.

Based on the case of the Confucian revival, I offer a critical perspective to rethink the concept of scale and the global-national-local distinction in comparative education research. Much energy in comparative studies of education has been devoted to spatialising the differences, making the global-local binary ever more durable. Classrooms and schools are often considered as the local, state policies and bureaucracy as the national, and international travelling discourse as the global. Yet, the utility of scale is increasingly called into question. Scholars in human and cultural geography have had sustained theoretical reflection on the concept of scale, positing that scale is less of a physical domain than an interplay of different regimes of value, and the ways in which certain values become hegemonic. Indeed, scalar logic reinforces a hierarchy of knowledge production, where some forms of knowledge are taken as paradigms, and other forms of knowledge as contained in local particularity. A flexible understanding of scale as flat ontology, on the other hand, attempts to denaturalise the material effects of assigning the global more causual force and regarding others as merely derivative (Marston, Jones, and Woodward 2005).

Confucian revival is not merely a national (or nationalistic) phenomenon; it is simultaneously deeply localised – in shaping parental strategies at childrearing – and global in reach, speaking to the worldwide interest in Confucian Heritage Culture associated with Chinese students’ academic achievement and China’s economic and political ascendency. Confucian revival is a site of multiple imagined communities – of the nation-state, students and families, self-searching populace, global China watchers, and much more. It is simultaneously a local, national, and global phenomenon which renders the scalar logic unproductive. Hence, in the field of comparative education, scale needs not to be seen as a ‘matter of fact’, but a ‘matter of concern’. This paper urges us to move beyond seeing scales as physical entities to seeing them as assemblages and frictions of imagined communities, discourses, values, and meanings.

Jinting Wu, 2019


Herzfeld, M. 1997. Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State. New York, NY: Routledge.

Marston, S. A., J. P. Jones, III, and K. Woodward. 2005. “Human Geography Without Scale.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 30 (4): 416–432.

Pang, Qin. 2014. “‘The Two Lines Control Model’ in China’s State and Society Relations: Central State’s Management of Confucian Revival in the New Century.” International Journal of China Studies 5 (3): 627–655.

Pepper, S. 2000. Radicalism and Education Reform in Twentieth-Century China: The Search for an Ideal Development Model. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wu, J., and M. Wenning. 2016. “The Postsecular Turn in Education: Lessons from the Mindfulness Movement and the Revival of Confucian Academies.” Studies in Philosophy and Education 35: 551–571.

Yu, Hua. 2016. “Between the National and the International: Ethnography of Language Ideologies in a Middle-Class Community in China.” The Asia-Pacific Education Researcher 25 (5): 703–711.

Author Bio

Book cover

Dr Jinting Wu is Assistant Professor of Educational Culture, Policy and Society. She is an educational anthropologist with an interest in philosophy and cultural studies. Her research often deploys ethnographic field methods to critically investigate relationships among schooling, society, and culture; it also examines educational policy shifts both as lived experiences and as reflecting the larger spheres of cultural ideation, social (re)production, nation building and globalization. Recent projects have involved study of rural minority education, child disabilities and special education, immigrant youth and families, and educational meritocracy on the global stage. Prior to joining the GSE faculty, she worked as Assistant Professor at the University of Macau (SAR, China) and was a postdoctoral fellow of educational sciences at the University of Luxembourg. Jinting is author of Fabricating an Educational Miracle (SUNY Press, 2017 AERA Division B Outstanding Book Recognition Award; The Society of Professors of Education Outstanding Book Award).

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