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They can recite the poems of Mao and the classics of Confucius. They can perform Beethoven on ancient Chinese stringed instruments. They are equally adept at kung-fu kicks and Web-page clicks.

At an experimental school in the green hills outside Beijing, 56 children are studying a new hybrid of Confucian philosophy and modern technology. Their supporters say they could become the elite of tomorrow's China. Their critics say they are a throwback to the hierarchies and privileges of the feudal past.

Shengtao school, founded by a group of writers and intellectuals, is one of the most controversial of China's new wave of private schools.

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Leftists denounce it, remembering how Confucius was condemned as a "stinking corpse" in Maoist times. But its popularity is growing, despite its expensive tuition fees, and the school is expanding next year to a new campus for 720 students.

"I think more schools should be teaching Chinese traditional culture," said 14-year-old Xi Yu Meng, a student at Shengtao since it opened in 1998.

"We are in modern times and should learn modern technology, but we should also learn about our 5,000-year history," he said. "I think the students in our school are more polite and moral than students in other schools."

The teenager, whose father is an affluent Beijing businessman, said he has memorized every word of a 300-chapter poem from Confucian times, even though the poem is written in classical Chinese, as remote from today's language as Latin or Greek would be from English.

He also studies traditional Chinese calligraphy, painting, music and martial arts.

But he admitted that his favourite hobbies are computer games and surfing the Internet. He wants to be an astronomer when he grows up. And despite the school's prohibition against listening to pop music in the dormitories, he confessed that he sometimes sneaks in a Walkman to listen to the latest hits.

"I know it's against the rules," he said.

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The school charges 15,000 yuan a year -- about $2,700 -- to cover tuition, room and board. It's not a huge sum, but enough to exclude the vast majority of the Chinese population.

Exclusivity, however, is a big selling point for China's fast-growing private-school sector. No more of the old Communist ideology of equal privileges for the poorest of workers. The new private schools are unabashedly expensive and elitist.

In 1995, only about 400,000 children were enrolled in private elementary or secondary schools in China. Five years later, private-school enrolment had soared to 3.1 million. Some are run by profit-making companies that collect millions of dollars worth of revenue.

In Beijing alone, about 50 private schools have emerged, barely a decade since the first one was permitted. Some charge the equivalent of $15,000 just to sign up.

One private kindergarten in Beijing, which charges about $9,000 a year, expects its children to memorize 300 characters from China's written language by the age of 4 and learn 1,000 by age 5.

Confucian schools are in the vanguard of this new fashion. In addition to Shengtao school, there are weekly classes for dozens of preschool children at the Confucian Temple in Beijing, where the children learn Confucian classics and Tang Dynasty poems. Several Chinese universities now offer courses in Confucian philosophy. Many cities and towns are restoring their Confucian temples, and the government has set up a $38-million research institute to study the thinking of Confucius.

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Confucian ideas of rigid hierarchies and obedience to authority were the basis of Chinese education and civil-service examinations until the 20th century, but after the 1949 revolution, the Communists tried to eradicate them. During the Cultural Revolution, children were encouraged to denounce their parents, breaking the Confucian code of respect for elders. As recently as 1989, the director of Beijing's Confucian Temple argued that the ancient philosopher was 40 per cent good and 60 per cent bad.

But Confucianism is making a comeback. Its belief in rote learning, including the memorization of classic texts, has been revived. Some state media have praised it as a solution to a "moral crisis" that is often blamed on Western influences. Some analysts suggest that Beijing is impressed by the concepts of deference and obedience it inculcates.

Among parents and non-state media, there is raging debate over its merits. One newspaper, China Youth Daily, organized a free-wheeling discussion on the subject.

"In an age of information and technology, should we inherit the Confucian culture or throw it away?" it asked.

One mother, Xie Wei, told the newspaper that the revival of Confucianism is "as ridiculous as asking all the children to sing Peking opera." But a university student responded that the ancient philosophy is a good alternative to the "cartoon films and cartoon books" of modern popular culture.

At the Shengtao school, the students rise at dawn and begin their day with a one-kilometre run and a martial-arts class, the first of three such classes every day. Wearing their school uniform (grey pants and yellow shirts with red kerchiefs), they practise their kung-fu moves with military precision, screaming and punching the air in unison.

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Then it's on to a packed curriculum of modern and classical subjects, followed by homework in their dormitories until 9:30 at night.

"The most important thing is to teach our students how to be a good person, a cultured person," headmistress Liu Yinfang said.

If it weren't for the Confucian school, the children would be reciting jingles and pop songs, she said.

"The Chinese economy is growing very fast, but moral education is lagging behind. There are a lot of moral stories in the Confucian classics. Our students gradually learn to respect their parents and older siblings, to help others and be honest."

Ms. Liu argues that the rise of private schools is helping China attract new sources of private financing for its education system.

"The biggest problem in the education system is the lack of funds. It needs more private funding," she said.

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Twelve-year-old Lan Tu said she has become a better daughter since entering the school. Whenever she returns home to see her parents now, she gives them a formal greeting: "Father and Mother, I have returned."

"In the past," she said, "I didn't greet my parents when I came home. Now I respect them much more."

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