SITONG, China - In a remote part of China, the day starts at the Democracy Elementary and Middle School with a pre-dawn jog, some revolutionary songs and then an activity long-since forgotten at other schools: reciting quotations from Mao Zedong's "Little Red Book".
While the ruling Communist Party that Mao led holds him in esteem as the leader of the Communist Revolution, his radical policies and teachings have been largely shelved since his death in 1976 in favour of a pro-market approach that has turned China from a backwater into the world's second biggest economy.
But for Xia Zuhai, a farmer-turned-educator with thick-rimmed glasses and a toothy, broad smile, there are no teachings more important than those that Mao gave the world.
"Education isn't just for learning practical skills, but it is more importantly for character building, to create good people," said Xia, who founded the school in 1996.
"From the basic level, Mao Zedong Thought is for uprightness, kindness, and greatness ... Mao Zedong Thought is, in reality, about taking people and liberating them from material desires so they can be free and natural people. This was Chairman Mao's greatest educational point."
Lofty though it may be, the message is being ignored by most in China today and that needs to change, he says, echoing a small but vocal contingent of leftists who regularly invoke Mao to criticise the materialism and inequality that have grown since market reforms started in the late 1970s.
The school has about 20 students. Many are poor and their parents placed them in Xia's boarding school for lack of better options. In 2005, it boasted about 600 students, but Xia says it has fallen out of favour in the thrusting China of today.
To be sure, students take classes in maths, English, Chinese and other core subjects at the school in the rural central province of Henan. But Xia puts special emphasis on Mao Thought.
The school is largely funded by the government.
Posters of Mao are pasted at the entrance and in classrooms.
Students memorise Mao's aphorisms, and Xia tries to drill home the message that to work hard and "Serve The People" is righteous.
The school keeps ducks, chickens, goats and a vegetable garden. Farm work is good for teaching Mao's dedication to hard work, he says.
The "Little Red Book" is a pocket-sized collection of quotations from Mao that was first published for the military in the 1960s but became a must-have during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. To most in China today, it is perhaps a curio from a bygone era seen mostly at tourist shops. At the Democracy School the books are dog-eared and well used.
"Eastern culture and Mao Zedong Thought both preach thrift,"Xia told Reuters.
"Thrift is good for people ... Only Mao Zedong Thought can save the world."