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Teaching a Respectful Profession in China

Teaching has been a highly respected profession in China since the time of Confucius 2,500 years ago right through to the 21st century.

It made breaking news in the country recently when several students in a doctoral program "fired" their tutor because the professor had asked the students to work for his private company for meagre wages.

In fact, it has been a common practice for professors to work their students in this way. Students either receive little payment or no payment at all.

Rarely have people complained. It seemed part of the student's role. Something similar to the apprenticeships of olden days, when apprentices were supposed to serve their masters in every way, doing household chores and so on, in order to learn the skills of a profession.

Serving your professor is a way of showing your respect and gaining his favor. In academic circles, tutoring professors can continue to guide their students and help them with their promotion years after their graduation, making use of academic influence and personal relationships.

This dependency of students has invested professors with great power, which may result in the above mentioned situation.

Furthermore, parents, laying such emphasis on their children's education, are ready to pay a high price for it. When the teacher needs a little personal help from some student's parents, the latter is often ready to give a hand.

A school teacher was imprisoned recently for racketeering, after borrowing over 200,000 yuan (US$24,096) from several students' parents. The victims never questioned the arrangement because it was their children's teacher who needed the money.

Chinese students are taught to completely obey and respect their teachers from childhood, following a proverb that says: "Anyone who spends one day as your teacher should be treated as your father for your whole life."

Obedience is important from the first day of a child's school life. The child is told to be quiet in class, and follow every instruction the teacher gives. Questioning the teacher either makes the student look stupid or makes the teacher embarrassed, so it is rarely encouraged.

Western teachers are often surprised by the silence of Chinese students in class. The reason is that Chinese students are not used to classroom discussion.

According to one joke, Chinese students have no idea what is their "personal opinion about things". It is true that they are not encouraged to give personal views about any of their subjects.

Such customs may be related to China's traditional private school system. Scholars who used to fail the Emperor's Test and thus lost the opportunity to work as government officials were often invited to a community such as a village or a big family, to host a private school.

Physical punishment

The Four Books and the Five Classics were the major textbooks, which were the mandated topics of study for these Confucian scholars who wished to become government officials.

The teaching method was mainly repetition, that is, the student should recite the texts and those who failed were punished by beatings on the palm of the hand. Physical punishment is still used in many less-developed areas in China. Legal cases against abusive teachers appear occasionally in newspapers.

'Desirable jobs'

It would be unfair to put the blame for this monotonous teaching method on Confucius (551-479 BC) himself, who was one of the founders of Chinese philosophy and its ideological system.

Confucius' teaching shared something in common with that of Socrates. He would discuss lots of issues with students, using his familiarity with each student's background and personality to adopt the most effective pedagogical approach in each case.

In "Lun Yu", a book edited by his students, episodes of Confucius being challenged and even embarrassed by students can easily be found.

Confucius' students paid him with food. Later it became a tradition to pay a tutor with a bundle of dried pork. Today, the expression "shu xiu", meaning bundled pork, is still used to describe a teacher or public servant's pay.

The private character of traditional Chinese schools put teachers in an intricate situation. On the one side, the host community -- especially if it was a family -- hired him because they believed in his academic qualifications, and often had deep respect for his morality. On the other hand, the teacher had to rely on the host family for his living.

There was a classical joke about a teacher composing a humorous couplet complaining about the bad food his host supplied him with.

A teacher's mission was to teach the right way to live, pass on knowledge, and solve questions and doubts, wrote essayist Han Yu (768-824). Chinese, laying great emphasis on children's education, paid high respect to the profession.

Teaching is never a very well paid job, but it would probably still be listed among the "most desirable jobs". It is a job that takes great devotion and patience, it is often seen as that of a "soul gardener", or as a candle that "burns itself up to enlighten others".

In modern China, most schools and universities are publicly funded and teachers' colleges receive more government funding than other schools, making it much cheaper to study in such colleges. Many students choose to study in teachers' colleges for this reason.

(Shanghai Star April 28, 2004)

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