On August 3, upon our invitation, Professor Caigui Wang from National Taiwan Normal University at Taipei, who is the sponsor of the "Children's Recitation of Classics Movement," came to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas to give a lecture. After the evening ceremony concluded at 7:30 pm, he gave a lecture entitled "Reciting and Memorizing Classics" in the Buddha Hall.
Professor Wang defined classics as valuable books. In the history of every ethnic group, there are some widely accepted classics. For example, China has the Four Books and Five Classics, India has the Vedic and Buddhist scriptures, and the Western world has the Bible. In the process of cultural exchange with other nations, our Chinese forefathers demonstrated excellent manners and very open minds. For instance, observing that the monks from India were endowed with lofty virtue and wisdom, they sincerely learned Buddhism from them. They did not forget or belittle their own culture, but tried to absorb and integrate other cultures. With Buddhism, for example, the Chinese have not only succeeded in transmitting Mahayana Buddhism, but have also created our own schools of Buddhism. Confucianism and Taoism, which had originally been the two mainstream Chinese cultures, evolved into the three: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. In contrast with ancient times, facing the challenge of modern Western culture, many Chinese have gone to extremes. They believed that since Oriental and Western cultures are incompatible, in order to westernize our country, we must renounce Oriental culture.
Under such a guideline, on January 19 in the first year of the Republic of China (1912), the Minister of the Education Department issued an order to abolish the "classics recitation curriculum" in all elementary schools. In May of the same year, another order was issued to abolish the "classics recitation curriculum" in all elementary, middle, and normal schools. From then on, young children were no longer taught to read the classics. Meanwhile, with the promotion of colloquial Chinese, Chinese people gradually lost the ability to read the classics, much less understand the ideas in them. As a result, there has been a gap in the transmission of Chinese culture.
Being too rigid in following American educational theories, the Taiwanese teach children according to the development of their faculty of understanding. One important concept is not teaching children what they are unable to understand. This theory totally ignores the exploration of children's faculty of memory. Actually the golden period for the development of the memory is from birth to thirteen years of age. For example, the Nobel Prize Laureate Dr. C. N. Yang memorized the whole text of Mencius in his youth under the guidance of his father. In his later career, Dr. Yang benefitted enormously from many of the ideas in that book, such as the idea that "everything is complete within oneself."
In modern times, Dr. Shizhi Hu had a good command of writing in colloquial Chinese because of his deep learning in classical Chinese. He began to learn classical Chinese at the age of four, memorized the Four Books and Five Classics at between ages five and six, read Zizhitongjian [a political history of China] at eleven and Zuozhuan [commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals] at thirteen.
If children are not given valuable literature to memorize in their golden early years so that it can become deeply ingrained in their minds, then that precious time will have been wasted, and their minds will be occupied by other material of little spiritual or cultural value. Young children have strong retention power but are still weak in understanding. That's why reciting classics is appropriate for them. Once they have memorized something useful, although they may not understand it immediately, as they grow older and understand more, they will be able to retrieve it and apply it in their lives.
"Children's recitation of classics" not only serves to perpetuate the Chinese culture with its history of several thousand years, but also cures many weaknesses of modern education, from moral education to the sciences. The practical method of teaching children to recite classics is very simple. Teachers or parents just need to select some valuable books, then have the children recite them over and over until they have memorized them.
On the next day, August 4, at the request of the audience, Professor Wang, a witty and eloquent speaker, held an informal discussion on the same topic. Although the discussion was supposed to end before lunch time, the audience still had so many questions that another discussion session was scheduled in the afternoon. His schedule was certainly packed. Someone inquired in concern, "You are taking the midnight flight tonight, and we've kept you busy ever since you arrived last night. Can you take it?" He said, "As long as what I do helps promote the recitation of classics, it doesn't matter if I get tired or not." Professor Wang hopes to make "recitation of classics" the largest cultural movement after the May Fourth Movement. In order to realize this goal, he has devoted his enthusiasm and energy without regard for his personal well-being.
Even more people attended the afternoon session, including many children. In the morning session, Professor Wang had focused on some fundamental concepts of culture and its transmission. In the afternoon, he spoke more on the concrete steps of teaching the recitation of classics. He answered questions one by one. Using the audience as a class, he gave a demonstration so that everyone could get the feel of reciting classics.
Professor Wang's emphasis on memorizing classics is reminiscent of the Venerable Master Hua's repeated instructions to memorize Sutras. Through memorizing Sutras, cultivators can reduce their random thoughts, increase their concentration, purify their bodies and minds, and unfold their wisdom. The Venerable Master said, "The approach is to daily review the Sutra text you have memorized. Don't be greedy to memorize quickly or to memorize a lot. Review daily, and skill will arise from your familiarization with texts. From skill, efficaciousness results. Take care not to discard what is near you and seek something far away. If you get caught up in superficialities, you will not be able to deeply enter the treasury of Sutras and unfold your wisdom... In studying, there are three aspects: eyes, mouth, and mind. You should use your eyes, mouth, and mind and concentrate all of them on the text. There are also three places: on the road, on the pillow, and in the bathroom. These three places are perfect for memorizing Sutras. Whoever uses this method will be able to memorize Sutras very well. You all can give it a try."
The Venerable Master instructed that elementary school students at CTTB should memorize the Three Character Classic and the Rules for Being a Student. Many teachers in Developing Virtue Secondary and Instilling Goodness Elementary Schools have had firsthand experience in teaching children to memorize classics, so they strongly share Professor Wang's feelings in many respects. Realizing the difficulties of teaching Chinese in this country, many Chinese parents pay close attention to any information on the topic. No doubt, the visit of Professor Wang provided them with an opportunity to learn and exchange ideas. Since teachers in Developing Virtue and Instilling Goodness Schools can design their own textbooks, Professor Wang believes this is an excellent place to spread the idea of reciting classics. If teachers work on it persistently, good results can certainly be expected. As a result of this visit, many of the children here are more excited than ever about reciting and memorizing classics. Some teachers even want to use this approach to teach American students next semester.
Prof. Wang's visit also marks a high point in the study of how to revive traditional Chinese culture. The true value of our culture can be appreciated in the following quote of the Venerable Master: "Now I want to travel among all the nations with these Eight Virtues of filiality, fraternity, loyalty, trustworthiness, propriety, righteousness, incorruptibility, and a sense of shame, using this elixir to save the souls, lives, and inherent natures of all young people throughout the world." In order to spread the Eight Virtues in China and all over the world, literature that conveys the Tao Way is extremely important. Therefore, there is limitless significance in teaching children to read classics.