Educating the Cosmopolitan Citizen in Confucian Classical Education in Contemporary China

Research Highlighted

Wang, C. (2020). Educating the Cosmopolitan Citizen in Confucian Classical Education in Contemporary China. Chinese Education & Society, 53 (1-2): 36-46,

Dr Canglong Wang, University of Hull, UK

This article explores the connotations of cosmopolitanism and its role in citizen formation in the context of Confucian education in contemporary China. Since the mid-1990s, Confucian education has been rejuvenated throughout the country, demonstrating a trend of diversification in educational theories, methods and approaches. It is true that the revival of Confucian education is always sophisticated with complex nationalist sentiments, for instance, national superiority and inferiority. It also presents a distinct orientation of cosmopolitanism beyond national concerns, but this has yet received attention from researchers.

To uncover the meaning of cosmopolitan citizenship in the context of Confucian classical education, this article first goes into the theory of classics-reading education proposed by Wang Caigui who is popularly recognized as the leading figure of the Confucian education movement. Wang emphasized that contemporary Chinese citizens should not cast off their responsibility to carry forward Chinese traditional culture, arguing that the sense of national and cultural responsibility is derived from the common humanity that transcends racial, ethnic and national boundaries. Based on the common humanity, he stated that classics of all cultures in the world, regardless of which nation-state they belong to, are worth learning as they conform to human nature. Cosmopolitanism, associated with the thesis of human commonality and cultural universalism, is extensively distributed in the theoretical discourses on Confucian classical education. As classics are conceived to contain universal truth or eternal wisdom (changli) that surpasses national boundaries, reading classics is proposed to be the most reasonable approach to calling on human nature.

The cosmopolitanism espoused by classical education has exerted profound influences on the teaching and learning practice. In terms of teaching content, Wang Caigui strongly advised that students should not only read Chinese classics, but also engage in learning western great works, including English, German and Sanskrit classics. Mechanical memorization of classics is recommended as the principal way to cultivate cosmopolitan cultural talents in Wang’s theory. On the one hand, repeated learning is assumed to take full advantage of one’s memory, which is believed to be in line with the theory of children’s natural growth. On the other hand, the memorized classic texts are considered as the crystallization of the eternal and universal human wisdom, and this is argued in coherence with common humanity.

Drawing the sketch of the cosmopolitan civility suggested by Wang’s theory, I come to three points. Firstly, the Confucian-inspired form of cosmopolitan citizen is essentially a cultural subject, rather than a civil or political subject, whose fundamental quality is the sophistication in both Chinese and western classics. Secondly, the type of cosmopolitan citizen in Confucian education is responsible to carry forward Chinese traditional culture and also assumes the obligation to grasp western culture and promote global cultural integration. The sense of cultural responsibility derives from her/his examination and interrogation upon self, whereby s/he involves her/himself with the wellbeing of common world and humankind. Finally, learning classics, both Chinese and western, can be understood as a cultural and civic action that is associated with the broad revival of Chinese nation and the imagined fusion of Chinese and western cultures. This cultural and civic action manifests in a private and individual form but is also intimately connected to national and cosmopolitan concerns. To sum up, cosmopolitan citizenship in contemporary Confucian education is imagined to be a subject of culture, responsibility, and action, requiring one to substantiate his civic identity through memorizing both Chinese and western classics.

All the above are reflected in the teaching practice of cultivating Confucian cosmopolitan citizen at Yiqian School, where I conducted fieldwork. First of all, the School claimed to cultivate cosmopolitan citizen through classics learning and highlighted the dimension of ethical virtue. The image of cosmopolitan citizen drawn by the School referred to a moral subject with civic qualities, for instance, the obedience to social order and the spirituality of public participation, all of which are respected as the foundation to become a true human. Second, Yiqian School adopted the memorization-based pedagogy recommended by Wang Caigui and regarded it as the fundamental approach to transform students into cosmopolitan citizens. While Wang Caigui asserted that memorization is in line with the law of human development, the actual teaching practices encountered difficulties and contradictions. 

The international literature on cosmopolitan education highlights a moral imperative upon educators and educational institutions to promote students a cosmopolitan attitude, an “other-oriented” character, a disposition of tolerating and respecting different cultures, and the moral obligation for the word community. To a large extent, what lies at the center of cosmopolitan education is the moral and cultural form of cosmopolitanism, rather than the political or the legal. Owing to the moral inclination of cosmopolitan education, the international implications of the Confucian school case could be identified. Confucian education regards one’s moral endeavor and cultural competence as the most essential to overcome restrictions of patriotism and nationalism and to become citizens of the world. Confucian virtues such as spontaneous reactions to everyday life and affective connections share much commonality with those derived from ancient-Greek such as self-examination and narrative imagination. Mechanical memorization serves as a holistic approach to impart comprehensive knowledge of western and Chinese classics, insofar as to intensify learners’ moral awareness of cosmopolitanism. Nonetheless, the discord between teaching theory and practice implies the potential impairment of generalizing the memorization-based pedagogy for the nurture of cosmopolitan citizen.

Researcher’s bio

Dr Canglong Wang, University of Hull, UK

Canglong Wang is a lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Hull. His research explores the cultural, social and political implications of the revival of Confucian education in modern China. He is working as a co-guest editor for two special issues: one is about Confucian education revival for the journal China Perspectives, and the other is about Chinese education and civic actions for the journal Social Transformations in Chinese Societies. He is also leading an international collaboration project about the reemerging spaces of Confucian cultivation. His monograph entitled Cultivating the Confucian individual: Subjectification and classical schooling in China can be expected in 2022.  

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