Seven-year-old Lee Ying-chieh has paid a weekly visit to an elegant temple in Taipei for the past three years, rain or shine. But she isn't there to worship any deities, she has been studying the lessons of Confucius -- the great educator and philosopher of ancient China.
Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese children like Lee have enrolled in the weekend Chinese classics programs or "Duchingban" (
They study Chinese literary classics ranging from the teachings of Confucius and Mencius from some 2,500 years ago to the poetry from Tang (618-906 AD) and Sung (960-1279 AD) dynasties, which were famous for literature achievements.
The classics are often taught through songs and games while field trips to historical and cultural sites are part of the curriculum.
"I like the lessons because it's fun and I'm learning a lot more Chinese words than my classmates," says Lee during a break in a Saturday afternoon class at the Confucius Temple, a traditional yellow-roofed and red brick-walled building in the quiet Datong neighborhood of the capital.
"I want to be a Chinese language teacher when I grow up," she adds.
On any given Saturday, the rhymes from children aged between three and 12 years old reciting literary classics or poems seem to be giving a new vitality to the 121-year-old shrine to the ancient sage, a key Taipei landmark.
The growth of "Duchingban" is significant in Taiwan where a controversy has been raging over the teaching of Confucius -- China's most famous philosopher and political theorist whose ideas have influenced civilization in China and East Asia, including Japan and South Korea.
The Ministry of Education announced last November its plan to further reduce high school lessons in Chinese classics, including dropping the teachings of Confucius and Mencius, another of ancient China's prominent scholars, from the mandatory literature course list, ostensibly to ease the burden on students.
But some educators see the move as politically motivated. They say the government of President Chen Shui-bian (
Cross-strait tensions are high after Beijing last month passed the "Anti-Secession" Law threatening the country with war if it declares formal independence.
Education officials have brushed aside the criticism, saying they were adjusting the curriculum to "balance traditions and modernity."
Even if the government succeeds in wiping Confucius off the compulsory school curriculum, it will likely provide a further boost to private "Duchingban."
"I think it's crucial for children to learn more about our culture and history. Even the foreigners are now studying Confucianism," says Li Mei-yu, a 35-year-old housewife from Taipei County.
Li waited for two years to enroll her two sons in the popular free programs at the Confucius Temple, one of the first venues to offer such lessons.
Parents and teachers also hope that the teachings of Confucius, who stressed moral values, will provide a much-needed "character education" for the younger generations.
"My child is learning filial piety and other virtues through the classics. I believe such education will better equip him in today's problematic society," says Hsiung Shu-chen, whose eight-year-old son has attended the program for three years.
Parents are not alone in believing that politics and education should be kept separate.
"I think it's wrong to let politics interfere in education," says Chien Wan-hua, chief of the Taipei Classics Association which has offered Chinese classics programs in the Confucius Temple since 1999.
"Now more and more students can't even write proper Chinese compositions and they lack the values and ethics which are the foundations of Confucian classics," he sighs.
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