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Eminent teacher, philosopher and political theorist, and founder of its feudal system of education, Confucius is one of Ancient China's most famous figures, a man whose practical experience and deep thinking on the subject have left their mark on educational development in his own country and elsewhere. Revered in antiquity as the 'Supreme Sage' and the 'Model for Ten Thousand Generations', Confucius now enjoys universal acclaim; his remarkable and lasting contribution to teaching and education has ensured him a place in history, as well as in culture, in China and beyond. The influence of his pedagogy remains perceptible today. Recent years have seen a renewal of interest in Confucius, as scholars ask themselves whether his ideas have withstood the test of time.
Confucius was concerned with the intellectual development of his disciples, that is to say with the inculcation of culture, abilities and skills. In order to instill the moral values of feudal society in them, the basics of an all-round culture and the capacities required to exercise official responsibilities, he drafted six manuals which were considered to be the foundation of teaching and learning: the Book of odes (Shi); the Book of history (or Documents) (Shu); the Book of rites (Li); the Book of music (Yue); the Book of changes (Yi); and the Spring and autumn annals (Chunqiu). These didactic works, which deal essentially with social relations and with ethics but also address a large number of other subjects, including philosophy, history, politics, economics, culture and musicianship, constituted the first relatively comprehensive teaching manuals in Chinese history. Since Xunzi's 'Exhortation to Study', they have been respectfully referred to as jing (canonical works or classics). The Book of music has been lost, but the five other Confucian classics served for more than 2,000 years as the basis for education in feudal China. Nowhere in the world has any other didactic work ever been referred to with such consistency over such a long period. Beginning at the time when the Han Emperor Wudi founded the Imperial College in 124 BC and decreed that 'all schools of thought except the Confucian doctrine shall be proscribed', feudal China built the cult of Confucius and the reading of his canonical works into the foundations of an education that had been designed to serve the interests of the ruling class, according them a pre-eminence that would not be challenged until 1919, by the violent 'Fourth of May Movement'.
Besides the six classics, which were designed to provide a general culture, Confucius' teaching also covered the six arts (rites, musicianship, archery, chariot-driving, calligraphy and mathematics), the purpose of which was to impart skills and know-how through practice; according to Confucius, study of the six classics, coupled with mastery of the six arts, would inculcate sound moral sense and a solid cultural grounding that were necessary for the competent exercise of public office.
Rooted in political and moral principles, Confucian education is concerned solely with what constitutes the makings of the 'man of quality' and with the tools that the official must master. Natural sciences are hardly touched upon; trade and agriculture are completely ignored. Another outstanding feature of the educational theory and practice of Confucius and the feudal teachers who succeeded him is disdain for manual labour and those engaged in it. Except for a few minor alterations, the content of education continued to reflect the options and priorities established by Confucius throughout the feudal period.