The ancient Chinese gave great importance to family customs and the “cultivation” of discipline and virtue. Since their culture followed the principles of benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom, and honor as fundamental values, a philosophy that concentrated around the cultivation of virtue and moral behavior towards relatives was of great appeal to the ancient Chinese. Especially a philosophy whose main dogma was centered on discipline and respect towards the family.

The ancient Saints and sages had great compassion and paid a lot of attention to their children and their education, but they were also very strict with them. In this way, they taught their children to follow other people’s good advice and to lead a good life without regrets. The method of education that was used to raise the children of the ancient Chinese is of great value to us today.

Confucius taught his son to learn the Book of Songs and the Rituals

Confucius was a great thinker and a great educator. It is said that he had more than 3000 students under his wing.

In the Analects – a collection of sayings by Confucius and dialogues with his disciples – there is a story about one of his students Chen Kang and a conversation he had with Confucius’ son Boyu, also known as Kong Li.

Chen Kang asked Boyu, saying, “Have you heard anything special in addition from your father?”

Boyu replied, “No. Once he was standing alone in the yard when I passed the hall with hasty steps, and he said to me, ‘Have you learned the Songs?’ I replied ‘Not yet.’ He said, ‘Not learning the Songs, you will not know how to speak.’ I retired and learned the Songs. Another day, he was again standing alone when I passed by the hall with hasty steps, he said to me, ‘Have you learned the Rituals?’ I replied ‘Not yet.’ He said, ‘If you do not learn the Rituals, you will not be able to establish yourself.’ I retired and I learned the rituals. I have heard these two things from him.”

Chen Kang retired, and with delight, he said “I asked one thing, but I got three. I heard about the Songs, about the Rituals, and also about the way an exemplary person maintains a distance from his son.”

The Book of Songs and the Rituals are part of the fundamental teachings of Confucius. The Book of Songs is the first collection of ancient Chinese poetry, and it ranks as one of the Confucian classics. The Rituals – which is made up of the rituals from the Book of Rites, along with the Rites of Zhou, and the Book of Etiquette – lay at the core of traditional Confucian canon.   

The philosopher also said, “Poetry can express someone’s thoughts, poems can express someone’s ambitions, and songs can express someone’s words.” He believed that the usage of art and literature as living teaching documents was more effective than preaching. The Book of Songs has 350 works in total, all of which were compiled and edited by Confucius. Most of these songs speak of cultivation, of following ethics, and the will of Heaven.

Confucius believed that someone’s moral cultivation should start with learning the Songs and Rituals.  While other subjects like history, nature, and sociology can be learned from his readings. He said, “Students will become successful with the Songs, and stable with the rituals.”

When he talked about rites, he was actually talking about moral behavior and virtue. Education begins by teaching students moral and virtuous behavior by cultivating their morality and discipline. That is how teachers can lay the foundations for the future development of a person.

Confucius treated his child in the same way that he treated his students – he never received any special instructions from his father, nor did he receive any secret teachings that he would not teach to others. He used the same criteria while evaluating his son and his students, and he treated everyone equally. The intellectuals of the Confucius era have always considered the Master’s method of educating his students – with the Songs and the Rituals – as a family heritage.