Record: Xiaoming Sheng, “Confucian Work and Homeschooling: A Case Study of Homeschooling in Shanghai” in Education and Urban Society, XX, No. X (2013), 1-17. [abstract here]


The article under review here is a condensed version of a 2011 work by Sheng, recently reissued by Sense Publishers and available here.

Sheng begins by reminding readers of the profound economic changes that have taken place in China since market-based reforms were implemented in 1978.  Most significant for this study has been the rise of a large middle class in several of China’s cities.  Homeschooling, argues Sheng, has emerged along with this middle class in such cities as Beijing and Shanghai.

 A previous study Sheng describes (but does not cite) had found that homeschooling parents in Beijing were middle class Christians frustrated with the inflexible, standardized-test obsessed Chinese education system.  Sheng had become aware of a group of homeschooling parents in Shanghai and decided to compare them to this Beijing group.

 The Shanghai group, interestingly, was not Christian.  Instead, parents involved in this network were eager for their children to absorb Confucian values.  One mother, frustrated with the lockstep schooling of the public school system, pulled her daughter and nieces from the schools and began teaching them herself in her home.  Other members of this woman’s extended family found out about what she was doing and sent their children to her as well.  Before too long the “Meng Mu Tang” homeschool had twelve children living together.  Since unregistered schooling is illegal in China, public officials forcibly closed this organization in 2006.  The woman running it disregarded official pronouncements and reopened.  It was closed again in 2009.  Sheng doesn’t tell us what happened after that, but from the text it sounds as if Meng Mu Tang is still going.

 The typical day at Meng Mu Tang begins at 6:20 with some ceremonials.  From 8 to 11 the children memorize and recite Confucian works along with other literary classics, including Shakespeare.  From 11-12 they take “comprehensive courses” like drawing, music, yoga, science, and handcraft.  After an 1.5 hour break they have an afternoon session similar to the morning session.  Then in the evening there is “self learning time” where children can read, journal, draw, or whatever.  They all go to sleep together at 8:00.

Interviews with the parents who sent their children to Meng Mu Tang reveal a consistent motivation.  All of them are middle class businesspeople who are too busy to teach their children themselves but who value the hands-on, individualized attention their children are getting at Meng Mu Tang and especially the Confucian moral training.  Most of their children had failed to thrive in the highly competitive and inflexible Chinese school system.  Meng Mu Tang is for them a corrective.  According to Sheng’s interviews, most parents were very pleased with both the academic and moral progress their children were making.

 The most frequent criticism of Meng Mu Tang and other alternative approaches is that they fail to prepare students adequately for the rigorous entrance examinations that must be passed to attend Chinese universities.  The parents have an easy response.  All of them are hoping to send their children overseas for higher education and so will not have to worry about these tests. 

 Sheng next asks why certain parents are so drawn to Meng Mu Tang.  Her conclusion is that they represent a sort of middle-class nostalgia for simpler times when children were respectful of their elders and other traditional Chinese values were honored.  While many middle class Chinese have bought into the sorting race, these families are the relative minority that feel like something important has been lost in the rush toward modernity. 

 Finally, Sheng offers three policy recommendations for Chinese education officials in light of the Meng Mu Tang phenomenon.  First, she thinks officials should pay attention to the critique these parents are making against public education.  If these parents weren’t unhappy, there would be no homeschooling in China.  Second, rather than prohibit outright or ignore such trends, Sheng recommends that educational authorities create regulations that allow parents to teach their children but also provide safeguards to protect the well-being of home educated children.  Third, Sheng wants public school resources, especially library resources, to be made available to home educators.

 Appraisal:  I enjoyed reading this case study of a unique model of home education in a country that hasn’t been studied much at all by homeschooling researchers.  I do wish Sheng had provided her readers with some sort of introductory section that gave the big-picture view of the legal situation for home education and had provided us with more information about the Beijing study she mentions.  I also found her frequent invocation of some of the not-so-great English language literature unnecessary.  But it’s wonderful to have this study, and I hope very much that Sheng and other Chinese researchers expand upon it so that we can all get a clearer picture of the context for and extent of home education in China.

Milton Gaither, Messiah College, author of Homeschool: An American History.

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One Response to CONFUCIAN WORK AND HOMESCHOOLING: A Look at Home Education in China

  1. Isaac D says:

    This is fascinating to me for all of the reasons you have mentioned, plus one additional reason.

    Ever since I read Confucius’ Analects (as a homeschooled student) I have seen strong parallels between the social philosophy of American homeschoolers (usually Christian) and classical Confucian social philosophy.
    I would hate to draw any sweeping conclusions from the one instance, but it does seem that the homeschool model fits very well with Confucian beliefs about the relationsip between family, society, and moral development. If I am correct, then homeschooling as an educational option may become more popular in cultures where Confucian philosophy has historically been influential (e.g. Singapore, China, and Japan).

    Regardless, I think it is worth noting that parents (both in Shanghai and in America) are often unhappy not simply because they see specific problems within the public education system, but because they have problems with inherent parts of the public education model (such as age-segregation of children into large cohort groups, which may limit intergenerational socialization).

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