On a recent Friday afternoon in this southern Chinese province, the fourth-graders at Bowen International School were sitting up straight, their arms neatly crossed in front of them, belting out 13th-century Chinese poems on the virtues of being polite, respecting their parents, and working hard in school.
"To behave as a younger brother towards elders, is one of the first things to know," the children chanted with drill-like intensity. Deborah Chan, an administrator at the school, noted that while the students probably don't grasp the full meaning of the texts, which are written in archaic characters, she hopes the lessons will stay with them.
"Now the government ... pays attention to ancient Chinese culture," Ms. Chan observes. "Ancient Chinese culture is seen to have advantages in teaching students very moral things."
But as the government asks schools like Bowen to focus more on classic Chinese literature and art – including the teachings of Confucius, who emphasized traditional values and respect for elders – recent national curriculum reforms also call for more creativity and critical thinking in the classrooms, including some approaches to teaching and learning more traditionally found in the United States and Europe.
The apparent contrasts in teaching trends reflect China's ambitions to forge ahead as a player in the world economic scene without completely absorbing Western cultural values along the way.
So while some lessons transport the children back to ancient China, others aim to prepare the students for a more modern, global future. Even as the children at Bowen practice their ancient recitations, Chan points out some of the school's other telling features, including summer foreign-exchange programs and a new 10-story international center that towers over the rest of the campus.
Wang Jiajun, the principal of the Beijing Huijia Private School, says the goal is simple: "We want our students to become world people with Chinese hearts."
As classes end this day at Bowen, the students leave behind the traditional gu zheng music lessons, kung fu exercises, and ancient Chinese poems. They chatter excitedly about upcoming weekend plans to watch Western television shows and surf the Internet.
Pointing to such conflicting influences, Don Wyatt, the chair of the history department at Middlebury College, notes that there's a risk with this latest effort to balance tradition with modernity, and China with the West.
"Some of the values that come with globalization are, of course, democracy and human rights," he says. "Yes, there is a risk with respect to this, but I think from the standpoint of the Chinese state, it's an acceptable risk."
There's an "old convention" in Chinese education of integrating Western methods with Chinese traditions, says professor Wyatt.
For instance, in the 1870s, about 120 boys were sent abroad to study in America – but only with Confucian mentors by their sides.
This 19th century attempt to expose Chinese students to the West, while keeping them spiritually pure, ended in a failure of sorts, Wyatt says. Many of the young men shed their traditional values, played sports, married Western women, and converted to Christianity.
Now once again, "there is a concern about issues of spiritual pollution as China emerges as a superpower," says Wyatt.
Noticeably absent from many civics courses is the history of Chinese communism and Mao Zedong. Instead, the works of Confucius, who emphasized community harmony, are thought to help in producing more obedient and peaceful citizens.
Many parents enthusiastically support the return to core values in the classroom. Having come of age closer to the Cultural Revolution – when schools were shuttered and philosophers like Confucius were reviled as anti-egalitarian – they want their children to understand their cultural heritage.
One afternoon, Chan watches two third-grade girls from Bowen practice the gu zheng, a Chinese musical instrument with a 2,500-year history. The expensive instrument was considered elitist under Mao, but has recently resurged in popularity, accompanying the rise of classic music and morality in the classrooms.
"I like traditional Chinese music because you can learn how to be very concentrated and focused," Chan says, watching the girls wait patiently for a turn with the teacher.
In elite schools throughout the thriving port city of Ningbo, located a few hours drive south of Shanghai, the newest teaching methods emphasize interactive, hands-on activities – not the rote memorization which tends to dominate most Chinese classrooms.
At Wanli International Middle School, teacher Robert Yan proudly displays a hallway known as "English world." Here, sample passports, visas, and departure cards hang on the walls to educate students about world travel.
Students can leave notes for the principal expressing their concerns in boxes, a new effort to encourage them to speak their minds. In one classroom resembling a cafe, high schoolers chat informally in English with their teachers about movies and the weather. A sign at the entrance to the room advises the students: "Please leave your Chinese at the door."
"Some teachers cannot speak English, but can help students pass the exams," Mr. Yan says, referring to the university entrance exams. In many schools, the focus is still on memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules for the English portion of the exam, not practicing speaking.
Zhu Hao, a junior at one of Ningbo's top high schools, says he enjoys the more project-based teaching approaches, like a recent assignment to build a replica of a human cell using items found at home or in the market.
The new ways are "better than the teacher standing in front of the blackboard just talking," Hao says. "That's boring."