The Development of Moral Education in China

Professor Zhang Zhigang

Shanghai Education Commission

Room 504, No.1260 Yan An Road West Shanghai P. R. China

Tel. 86-21-6294-8184


This article describes the development of moral education in China, especially in the recent 10 years, and the structure of the moral educational system in the country. It introduces the concepts of moral education practiced in China and the two-fold goal of moral education and the importance of balance between personal and collective needs. The article introduces two important sources of moral education: the first is specific historical culture, based on Confucianism, the foundation of the whole system of morality-benevolence, rightness, propriety, wisdom, and trustworthiness; the second is the new school of spiritual psychology which contrasts markedly with the modern psychology in the country. The article also analyzes the new “one-child generation”, both its negative and positive aspects. Also discussed is the principal content of moral education in the school curriculum. The last part describes the new methods of moral education, which also are regarded as revolutionary.

The Development of Moral Education in China

A Descriptive Model of Applied Spirituality

Professor Zhang Zhigang

During the last ten years of the last century, changes in almost every field occurred in China; China itself as well as the rest of the world has taken notice of these changes.  These changes, however,  have not been noticed in the field of education, particularly not in the field of moral education. Chinese professionals in this field seldom leave the country to connect with their counterparts in other parts of the world. On the other hand, much of the rest of the world has little or no interest in concepts of Chinese moral education.


After the People’s Republic of China was set up in 1949, freedom of religious belief was allowed. However, religion was not incorporated into the school system, particularly not as an aspect of moral education as it has been in many other countries.   Moral education, sometimes translated as character education or value education, is designated to influence in a positive manner the character and well-being of the younger generation in  China’s 1.3 billion population. The Federal Ministry of Education has two special departments in charge of moral education, one in general education which includes primary, middle, and high school education, and the other in higher education which includes all colleges and universities. In the 27 provincial and 3 municipal boards of education, there is a special department by the name of The Department of Moral Education. In almost every school, there is an office conspicuously designated as the office of moral education. With growing concern about the general state of morality and values of the young people among the largest population in the world, it is time that professionals in the field of moral education, both in China and in the world community, strive for an increase in cross-cultural relationships and cooperation.  In all of China, the status and attitudes of its young people have been caused for concern and interest in providing them with moral guidance.

1. The Concepts of Moral Education in China

Chinese educators by and large are of the opinion that moral education norms regulating personal, social, and environmental interaction should be cultivated in young people. In the past, there was much talk in moral education circles regarding norms on personal and social interaction.  Then in the middle of the 1980s, as more and more attention was being paid to increasingly serious environmental pollution, educators also began laying emphasis on the importance of a healthy relationship between man and his natural environment. Thus, at present whether in academic research or in the field, moral education involves these three relationships, namely the personal, the social, and the environmental.

2. The Goals of Moral Education In China

Today, the goals of moral education are twofold. One goal addresses social needs. For instance, teachers use concepts such as  “we should be loyal and serve our motherland,” and “we should be loyal and serve our community and our people.” In addition to social needs, since the 1990s, a second more practical and meaningful goal has been brought forth: meeting students’ personal needs for their own development and happiness.  Thus, moral education addresses students’ personal benefit, referring to their personal development according to age and grade in school and according to their future progress and success as they move through adolescence and ultimately into adulthood. Moral education, when put into practice at all levels and variations, should serve students in their endeavors to discover and create a happy and meaningful life.


The developments in moral education have arisen as a response to the social and economic changes resulting from China’s transition from a planned economy to a market economy.  Until relatively recently, students received an education paid for by the state, and after graduation, they got jobs assigned by the state. But today, the students must go to high school and college at their own expense; and after graduation, they have to find their own jobs.  So, part of the responsibility of moral education must be assisting them in defining and clarifying personal needs.  As more and more teachers, scholars, and educators are becoming aware of this necessity, they are also becoming aware that there must be an important balance between personal needs and collective needs in the whole process of transition; and, very importantly, that any imbalance leaves room for extremism.

3. The Source Of Moral Education

In recent years, we Chinese scholars and educators have become vigilant in our attention to the problems naturally resulting from China’s tremendous economic and social changes.  Every day we are confronted with what essentially are individual and collective problems of meaning and purpose, and at the same time realize that we need to make a great step forward in modifying our system of moral education, sensitizing beliefs and practices concerning the improvements made necessary by these changes.  This leap forward has two sources: one is China’s historically outstanding culture. The other is the psychology of spirituality and the theory of applied spirituality.


A. Confucianism

In China’s historically magnificent culture, Confucianism has always been a most important source of ethical and moral inspiration. In Confucianism, it is the way that is so very important. Confucius once said, “If I found the way in the morning, I would die content in the evening.”  Whenever he talked about the way, he would do so with great reverence and awe.  In modern terminology, the way means the truth. Confucius spent his whole life exploring, spreading, and promoting the way, creating a system of morality for a society based on the way.  Of course, after 2,500 years some of its formulations are outdated; but a lot of scholars in the whole world remark that the essence of his way still has great value for humankind.


According to the classic Analects of Confucius, Confucius in his life discussed 30 kinds of virtues.  They are as follows: benevolence, rightness, propriety, loyalty, reciprocity, trustworthiness, respectfulness, reverence, wisdom, courage, filial piety, brotherly love, resoluteness, perseverance, simplicity, reticence, tolerance, generosity, diligence, kindness, mildness, thrift, politeness, forbearance, peacefulness, uprightness, eagerness in learning, readiness in correcting mistakes, modesty, and sense of shame.     Some important Confucian scholars of later ages singled out five of these virtues as the foundation that supports his whole system of morality. Following is a brief description of these five.


1. Benevolence 仁

Confucius said: “To be benevolent is to love.” It is the highest virtue. He continued: “To be human is just to be benevolent,” meaning that if a person lacks benevolence, the person is no different than an animal.  When talking about benevolence, one of Confucius’ students once asked, “Is there one single idea that can be practiced one’s whole life?” Confucius gave him an excellent answer, “Never do to others what you would not like others to do unto you!” Ever since this phrase has been regarded as the golden way, in English better known as the Golden Rule. Although 2,500 years have passed since Confucius talked about the importance of benevolence, today it still greatly affects our moral education.  More on this later.


2. Rightness 义

Rightness demands that humans always do, say, and think the right things, meaning that one’s behavior should be guided by virtues; if one’s behavior is not guided by them,  one might make mistakes and might cause trouble to society and oneself.  Confucius pointed out that the opposite of rightness is profit or gain:  “The virtuous person knows what is right; the petty person knows what is profitable.”  Confucius also demanded of his students that,  “The virtuous person thinks of rightness at the sight of gain,” and, “The virtuous person thinks of rightness when he sees a profit.”  When Confucius talked about dealing with other people, especially about the government’s dealings with its subjects, his idea reflected caring about the well-being of others: “Benefit the common people where they can be benefited!” This is a very special point.


3. Propriety 礼

Propriety refers to the observance of rites as found in ceremonies or practiced in institutions; and to customs, norms, and rules of behavior created to guide the relations among people. There is a very famous Confucian aphorism: “Do not look if it does not conform to the rituals; do not listen if it does not conform to the rituals; do not speak if it does not conform to the rituals; do not act if it does not conform to the rituals.”


4. Wisdom 智

Wisdom is a virtue, as without it people cannot understand the way or morality.  To acquire wisdom, Confucius emphasized learning and studying. A follower of Confucius once summarized wisdom as learning extensively, questioning carefully,  thinking prudently, discerning clearly, and practicing sincerely. There are some scholars who regard this as the earliest known pedagogy of human history.


5. Trustworthiness 信

Trustworthiness contains trust, faithfulness, and sincerity. Confucius said that the virtuous person should be “trustworthy in associating with friends,” and “I don’t know how a man who has lost trustworthiness can continue to function as a man.”  In a word, the virtues of benevolence, rightness, propriety, wisdom, and trustworthiness make up the foundation of the whole structure of morality.  For the most part,  these virtues still can be regarded as a potent and important source of moral education.


B. Psychology of spirituality has attracted more and more Chinese educators’ attention

In the last ten years, applied psychology, especially counseling psychology, and school psychology has spread very fast in the whole of China. This is the response to the fact that the whole society is paying more and more attention and respect to the individual’s personality and well-being. The Federal Ministry of Education has issued documents to the whole of China, calling on all schools to improve mental health education.  Within the last 10 years, the Federal Ministry as well as the 30 principal boards of education all have organized numerous training courses for school counselors; in the whole country, there is a great demand for professionals in applied psychology, i.e., in counseling and in school psychology.


Mental health education has become an integral part of the system of moral education. Its development arose with the support of moral education, while moral education itself in the field of ideas and approaches, has derived inspiration from the field of applied psychology, thereby greatly having improved itself.  This reciprocal arrangement is the unique characteristic of applied psychology as practiced in China.


Very recently educational circles in China have begun turning their attention to spiritual psychology, a school of thought originated by a Canadian psychiatrist, Dr. H. B. Danesh, currently residing in Switzerland.


According to modern psychology, when people encounter negative environmental stimuli, they may possibly acquire some emotional problems or even become mentally ill.  This person may feel depressed, anxious, and oppressed.  He may even develop more serious symptoms including psychosomatic ones.  Modern psychology and psychiatry use advanced technologies, such as antidepressants, and methods of counseling to help the person regain his/her emotional and physical health.  Once the person has regained his health, the need for continued intensive psychotherapy stops. As for spiritual psychology, psychotherapy does not end yet: according to its precepts, the patient is helped to get in touch with his or her spiritual dimension.  Seriously getting in touch with this dimension increases the person’s capacity for moral development. Accordingly, in spiritual psychology, the variation in people’s reactions to negative stimuli depends on their different spiritual development.


Most modern psychology focuses on people’s emotional and psychological state, including the person’s psychosomatic condition, studying people in a particular environment i.e., in the family, the school, or the community, and how passively affected to feel, think, get ideas, and produce emotion. Modern psychology seldom concerns itself with human spirituality.  Most often it ignores it or even denies it.  On the other hand, spiritual psychology regards body, mind, and spirit as a unified entity, each of these entities being inseparably interrelated to the other.  In this sense, unity is the essence of human nature.  As the name spiritual psychology implies, its primary attention is on the human spirit, studying its various important aspects and their relationship to each other, as well as their unique function relating to a person’s behavior and environment.


According to spiritual psychology, the human being is subject to both physical and spiritual laws.  Physical law governs the body and spiritual law governs our consciousness, also called mind or soul.  Spiritual law expresses three human powers that are unique: knowledge, love, and will.  From them emanate all human virtues.  Some of them are paramount: truth, which is the goal of knowledge; unity, which has the basis of love; and justice and service to mankind, which are manifestations of human will. Thus spiritual psychology provides a basis for understanding and improving the development of humankind’s spiritual powers of knowing (seeking truth), of loving (uncovering unity), and of will, (acting in a spirit of justice and service).  Educating people to understand all of humanity in this light can raise the standards of morality and improve the mental, emotional, and physical health of human beings everywhere.


As one source of moral education, spiritual psychology is improving the scientific basis of moral education, and at the same time, it is pushing applied psychology to take a big step forward in China!


4. An analysis of a new educational concern: the one-child generation

A. The current situation of China’s one-child policy

Since 1978 China has been enforcing a policy of one child per family. The general birth rate of Chinese women has declined from 5.44% in 1971; to 1.84% in 1998 to 1.62% in 2000. Statistics have proven that in these twenty years the one-child policy has succeeded in helping China avoid more than 300 million births. At the same time, however, a new generation, the one-child generation, has appeared in Chinese society. Presently most young people under 20 belong to this generation. They are the object of intense educational concern.


B. The negative aspects of the one-child generation

1. Self-centredness: 

within the family, the child is usually treated like a prince or princess and behaves selfishly. The “4+2+1” family structure (4 grandparents + 2 parents + 1 child) is the main reason for such behavior. The child is of central importance; its self occupies the most important position, where it learns that self-satisfaction is the criterion by which to make all judgments.  In 1999 a survey was conducted among 272 middle school students in Shanghai with the following results:

Do your parents know your birthday?100%
Do you know your parents’ birthdays?31%
Do your parents know what foods you like best?89%
Do you know what foods your parents like best?23%

2. Deep feelings of loneliness;

feelings of inadequacy and helplessness in enduring difficulties.  In the urban areas of China today, both parents of most families are working.  This phenomenon has created the latch-key child (‘child with the-key-hanging-round-his-neck’). Because more and more families are living in flats with iron-barred doors, neighborhood children have great difficulty mixing with each other. After school and before the parent’s return from work, children are at home alone, watching TV or doing homework. Some children have indicated that they often talk to themselves in front of the mirror.  Others dial a random phone number just to talk with anybody who answers. So some hotlines, if their phone numbers are easy for children to access, are usually very busy at this time of the day.   A survey conducted in 1998 among 2,834 primary, middle, and high school students in Shanghai showed that 15.43% had some kind of emotional problem because of poor adaptation skills and low-stress tolerance.


3. Poor ability to cope with daily life and poor social interaction skills:

few children help with the housework. A boy from middle school went to a summer camp organized by his school. His mother sent along food with him, packing it in a bag. When the boy took out the hard-boiled eggs, he did not know how to remove the shells. A lot of students do not know how to cooperate with other people. Another survey conducted on 179 university students revealed that 87% wanted to form a friendship with the opposite sex, but 44% expressed doubts as to how to go about doing that.


4. Behaviour problems:

parents, as well as educators, find the following problems in the one-child generation.

  • Lack of self-control and self-restraint; a weak sense of self-discipline
  • Poor manners
  • Unwillingness to work or study hard
  • No will to endure hardship

C. The positive aspects of the one-child generation

1). Better education:

Compared to the generation of parents, this one is better educated. A survey conducted among 1,050 families in Shanghai shows that 77.94% of the parents hope that their children go to college, whereas 46% of the parents themselves have received a lower level of education, i.e., only primary or middle school education.


2). Stronger sense of democracy:

The older generation was brought up with the belief to be obedient and follow the leader. The one-child generation, however, wants to be part of the process of decision-making. It often has its own ideas.


3). Scientific and creative attitude:

The one-child generation has a great curiosity about scientific inquiry and creativity. At one University in Shanghai, 2,083 students were asked to fill out an evaluation of themselves. The results showed that 44.45% strongly believe in modern scientific ideas, and another 40.52% mildly so.  Likewise, 38.59% strongly favor the transformative role of creativity and another 41.48% felt mildly in favor.


All in all, this generation has a big difference from the former generation, they have their own characteristics. So most educators admitted that the former way of moral education has become more and more invalid. The development of moral education is the tendency.


4. The principle content of moral education

1. The importance of love and care

Content regarding the creation of awareness and of the awakening and cultivation of the potential to love describes the greatest challenge facing the whole curriculum of moral education. Whether in kindergarten or at university, educators must strive to create and teach this content comprehensively and systematically, always keeping in mind the special characteristics and needs of their students just as UNESCO discussed several years ago. Being able to love and care must show in that students can love and care for

  • themselves, including their health
  • their parents, other family members, and relatives
  • their teachers, classmates, and school
  • their neighborhood, community, and country
  • people the world over
  • the earth’s natural environment
  • the universal values of knowledge, truth, and unity

2. Promote the cultivation of courtesy and respect in all relationships

Setting and enforcing standards of appropriate social behavior in primary and secondary schools have been the main thrust of moral education at this level. In 1988, The Federal Ministry of Educational issued guidelines with the title Twenty Behavioral Norms For Primary School Children and Forty Behavioral Norms For Secondary School Students. These guidelines defined standards of good behavior for students in the family, in school, and in society. They drew from traditional Chinese customs and culture as well as from universally acknowledged norms of behavior.   Most Chinese educators and parents hope that their children can be genuinely integrated as members of the global community.


3. Improvement of students’ mental and emotional health

This aspect of the curriculum for moral education is relatively new, having been introduced only 10 years ago. Nevertheless, it has been widely and rapidly accepted and supported by teachers, parents, and the students themselves. At present most universities and colleges have set up psychological counseling centers.  Furthermore, a great need for this type of help exists as indicated by the fact that such centers are finding rapid acceptance in communities at large and are being established even in some primary and secondary schools as well. The professionals in charge of the centers must undergo special training; in Shanghai, school counselors must be licensed. Once licensed, their duties become two-fold.  They are authorized to help students individually with their mental, emotional, and behavioral problems, and to set up campus-wide programs on mental health education emphasizing the following points:

  • Self-acceptance: promoting awareness of self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Study techniques
  • Actualization of academic and personal potential
  • Ability to self-regulate mental and emotional states, e.g., depression, anxiety  
  • Career Guidance
  • Creating awareness of spiritual potential
  • Effective communication

5. The methodology of moral education

Within the last several years a profound change in the methodology of moral education has taken place. In fact, by some this change is regarded as revolutionary. 

There are three aspects to it:

1. Attitude toward students

In the past, many teachers would regard students as containers or vessels into which teachers would stuff and squeeze whatever knowledge deemed necessary, either by teachers themselves or else policies decided by the higher levels of educational administration. But today teachers are beginning to see students differently, i.e., to see them as persons in their own right, to see them with their own soul, mind, and body. This is a truly meaningful transformation, one that has positive implications for students’ emotional and intellectual development.


2. Independent search and discovery of truth, values, and morality

In the past, a teacher’s teaching skills were measured by his ability to express ideas so clearly and logically that students could easily understand and memorize them, often being able to give verbatim answers to teachers’ examination questions. But today, the most important task of teachers is creating and guiding learning activities and an atmosphere of openness and trust wherein students are challenged and encouraged to search for truth.  The role of the teacher is true as a mentor, accompanying his students in their independent inquiries and searches and helping them internalize and integrate what they are discovering.  In this manner the truth becomes their truth; it becomes part of their personality.  Thus, the criteria for evaluating teachers’ performance also have changed, these changes coming in recent years first from China’s two largest municipal educational systems, Beijing and Shanghai.


3. Developing empathy for students

There is a very famous saying in Confucianism: “Consider others in their own position” (Zhu Xi). Starting in the big cities, this has become a basic principle of teacher training, especially for new teachers. Workshops are conducted to help teachers put aside their values, their worldview, their beliefs, and their prejudices; while looking at each student in front of them, try to see the unique world captured in the eyes of each one.  A teacher able to develop this quality of empathy is today a qualified teacher in our country.


We can only hope that all these far-reaching changes in the curriculum of moral education and in its teacher training shall continue to attract attention in all levels of education administration and practice, and spread at a speed that accommodates the economic and social changes taking place.  We have a good beginning but a long way to go.


  • 1. <Psychology of Spirituality>  H.B.Danesh  M.D. 1997 Published by Paradigm Canada


  • 2. <Unity: The Creative Foundation of Peace>  H. B. Danesh M.D.1986 Published by  Fitzhenry Whiteside, Toronto Canada


  • 3. <Analects of Confucius> disciples of Confucius, 1994 Published by Sinolingua, Beijing


  • 4. <The Doctrine of the Mean>Kong Ji,  1996 Published by Sinolingua, Beijing


  • 5. <The Great Learning>Zeng Cen,  1996 Published by Sinolingua,  Beijing


  • 6. <Understanding Confucius>  Ding Wangdao Prof.  1997 Published by Chinese Literature Press, Beijing
Zhang Zhigang
  • Chairman of South Shanghai Innovation and Entrepreneurship Consulting Service Centre;
  • Associate Professor, Director of Strategic Research, Advanced Industrial Technology Research Institute, SJTU;
  • Advisor to Center for Entrepreneurship at University of Michigan – Shanghai Jiao Tong University Joint Institute (JI-CFE);
  • Founder of Siyuan Commonweal Organization


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