Friday, November 18, 2011


From time immemorial, learning has been especially appreciated by the Chinese people, and study formed the basis of cultural life in China. The word "culture" (wén)(huà), literally meaning "changing through writing", attests to this.

In traditional China children began their studies by reading the classical texts, from which idioms entered the everyday language of the common people. The pupils were required to learn by heart and recite the studied texts. The classical Chinese language differed from the spoken one, however, and thus the children did not always understand the texts they had learnt by heart. In addition to the classical texts, they also studied poetry and linguistics.

Until the fall of China's last dynasty in 1911, education was directed only at males. However, as the main educators of children, women were expected to be familiar with both the classical and the preschool texts. The relationship between teachers and pupils was based on the model of the relations between father and son. This association between family and learning can be found in the word (jiā) , which means both "family" and "school" (of philosophy).

For over two thousand years learning to write Chinese had served more for self-development as a morally and socially positive individual than for communication needs. Self-development was not limited to merely acquiring knowledge, but also included the learning of proper behavior. Writing in Chinese contributes greatly to forging the personality of Chinese children. Practicing the writing of thousands of characters repeatedly from memory requires much concentration, determination and diligence. 

The philosopher Xun Zi (xún)()(298-238 BCE) believed that human nature is basically bad and that good nature must be acquired. In his view, the basic factors that motivate humanity are the will to profit and the desire to get the most possible without considering others. An individual might thus be jealous, hate and destroy others, while turning his back on truth and loyalty. As a result of being a slave to his animalistic desires, he exaggerates his deeds and turns away from righteousness. Natural behavior will only lead to violence, chaos and total barbarity. Only after being restrained by law and taught morality, can man become part of an organized society. Xun Zi gave the analogy that a carpenter is necessary in order to straighten a twisted tree.

Confucius stressed the importance of studies and education for self-development. In his Analects, knowledge (zhī)and learning (xué)are central values. He considered knowledge to be tangible and perceptible, rather than abstract and theoretical. He perceived Antiquity as reflecting a society fit to serve as a model for the generations to come.

In practice, the aim of education was to prepare people to hold public positions, which determined their social status and wealth. Since ancient times study had been a prerequisite in order to hold a position in the government. The only route by which one could reach such a position was that of the Imperial examinations.[1] Those who passed these examinations would serve the public and in their free time would occupy themselves with writing, calligraphy or painting. Those who failed (most of the examinees) served as teachers and managers of local projects, such as irrigation and charitable foundations.

In the 11th century there were fewer than 13,000 government officials, but hundreds of thousands studied for the examinations. Although these were open to all, the wealthy, who could pay for their studies, had an advantage over the other candidates. The fact that one's social status was determined by one's place on the examination scale put pressure on parents to push their children to succeed. Families took pains over their children's education, and the educated among them tended to intermarry.

The educated ran the schools and the religious institutions. They would dress in long robes with long sleeves and silk hats, clothing not suitable for physical work. Likewise, they would grow long fingernails.

In 124 BCE, during the rule of Emperor Wu () (ruled 140-87 BCE), an Imperial university was founded in the city of Chang'an (cháng)(ān), where candidates for government positions were trained. The studies included the five classical books ascribed to Confucius. When the university was first opened there were only 50 students, but by the end of the Han (hàn) dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), their number had reached 30,000. The admissions examination to this university, which was held once a year, became the basis for the future Imperial examination system.

During the Han dynasty, in 66 CE Emperor Ming (míng) (ruled 57-75 CE) founded a Confucian school in the capital city of Luoyang (luò)(yáng)for the children of nobles and government officials. From this school developed a National Academy.

Wang An Shi  (wáng)(ān)(shí)  (1021-1086 CE), statesman, economist, adviser and poet, transformed the National Academy by introducing reforms. New domains of studies were added to the Confucian studies, such as law, medicine and the natural sciences. Likewise, the subjects of law, military affairs and medicine were added to the examination system, with mathematics included in 1104. The students were carefully selected and organized on three levels, according to ability. Evaluations were held monthly, and once a year they were required to pass an intermediate examination, which determined whether they would continue their studies. Graduating from this academy ensured positions in the government, just as did passing the Imperial examinations. By paying more attention to practical knowledge than to literary style or to  studying the work of Confucius, Wang An Shi irritated the Confucians and bureaucrats who had entered under the old system, and were now being replaced by the new style candidates.

 Throughout Chinese history, though scholars were not expected to demonstrate knowledge in science and technology, these domains had gained special attention alongside classical philosophy. As early as the 3rd century BCE an encyclopedia was compiled that included knowledge on all the technologies prevailing in China at that time. This was the Lu Shi Spring and Autumn ()(shì)(chūn)(qiū)  , written by Lu Buwei  ()()(wéi) .[2] Lu Buwei was so proud of his work that he offered a gold reward to anybody who would be able to improve it by adding or removing even one word.[3] 

During the Ming dynasty Emperor Yong Le  (yǒng)() (1360-1424 CE, ruled 1402-1424 CE) initiated the compilation of a general encyclopedia -  The Encyclopedia of Yong Le (yǒng)()()(diǎn), which was completed in 1408. More than 2,000 scholars wrote 8,000 texts, ranging from Antiquity to the early Ming dynasty, including subjects from domains such as agriculture, art, astronomy, drama, geology, history, literature, medicine, science, religion and technology, alongside descriptions of supernatural phenomena. Scholars at the Imperial University of Nanjing (nán)(jīng) have assumed that it was handwritten in only one copy and never printed, because of the then high cost of woodcuts. From a copy of the encyclopedia, made in the 16th century, about 400 volumes of the 800 have survived, which are now to be found in libraries and private collections across the world.

A prominent ruler who promoted learning and knowledge during the Qing (qīng)   dynasty (1644-1911 CE) was Emperor Kang Xi (kāng)() (ruled 1662 – 1723), who  ordered the writing of the history of the Ming dynasty, and personally approved works that set new standards of writing. The new works included a dictionary comprising 45,000 different characters, and an encyclopedia encompassing 10,000 articles - a synthesis of books and illustrations from both earlier and contemporary periods.

The contribution of the Manchurian Emperor Qian Long (qián)(lóng)(ruled 1735–1795) to promoting knowledge in China was even more significant. He founded a library comprising some 3,460 works on 36,000 scrolls. Thus, the Manchurian emperors established their rule as the protectors of Chinese culture.

Scholars, as government officials, writers, painters and calligraphers, contributed much to Chinese culture throughout its history. About the life of scholars in Imperial China we can learn from The Scholars ()(lín)(wài)(shǐ) , written by Wu Jingzi ()(jìng)() (1701-1754 CE), who satirically describes the lives of scholars during the early Ming (míng) dynasty (1368-1644 CE).

A change in the Chinese attitude to study took place following the repeated military defeats suffered by them after the Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860), which led them to an understanding that they needed to modernize their society and technology. From the fall of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) to the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the institutions of formal education underwent significant transformations. During this period European, American and Japanese educational models were tried by Chinese scholars. Discussions were held on the adoption of Western educational styles in a nation that was attempting to find a new identity after a long period of Imperial dynasties. Everybody agreed that the education system had to satisfy the new technological needs of the state, but without losing its Chinese identity. Several attempts were made to achieve this, including an independent-study university established in 1921 in Hunan ()(nán)by Mao Zedong 毛泽东(máozédōng)and his friends. The intention was to give poor people access to higher education. These attempts came to a halt, however, following the Japanese invasion of China in 1937.

 From 1949 until the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) the education system followed the Soviet model. This meant that any interactive approach, which could facilitate discussion and independent learning, was prevented. Likewise, the education system was designed to meet the needs of the state rather than those of the individual. The government paid all student tuition and assigned the students their jobs.

In order to eradicate illiteracy and create equality among the social classes, the Communist party initiated simplification of the characters of the traditional Chinese script. The simplified characters have fewer strokes than the traditional ones and thus are easier to remember and write. Before the simplified script (which is customary in present-day China) was introduced, only a small stratum of society was literate. 

During the ten-year period of the Cultural Revolution, the infrastructure of the education system was destroyed, and the students were occupied with participating in the revolution rather than with studies. The years following the revolution brought stability to the education system, however, and in 1978, the year of the rise to power of Deng Xiaoping  (dèng)(xiǎo)(píng),   a compulsory education law (at least nine years) was enacted.

The public education system now provides free primary education for six years starting at the age of six or seven, followed by three years of junior high-school and three years of high-school. Some provinces have five years of primary school and four years of junior high-school.

The studies in primary school include subjects such as the Chinese language, mathematics and moral education. In recent years the students can also choose to learn English, a choice recommended to them by their parents and teachers. Junior high-school studies include subjects such as chemistry, biology, physics, history and geography. In high-school six or seven subjects are studied - English, mathematics, the Chinese language, and at least three subjects out of the following: history, chemistry, geography, physics and biology.

Entrance examinations to colleges or universities are held annually in July. Because the weather is very hot at that time of the year and the examinations are difficult, the month of July is called "black July" (hēi)()()(yuè) . 

About the attitude of the Chinese toward learning we can learn from a story told about the mother of the philosopher Mencius (mèng)() 371-289)   BCE). According to this story, when Mencius returned home from school and saw his mother weaving, she asked him whether he had learned everything. When he answered positively, adding that he already knew enough, his mother immediately took her scissors and cut the fabric that she was weaving. Mencius was surprised and worried. His mother then told him that his stupidity concerning learning resembled that of her ripping her unfinished work. She added that people only achieve the admiration of others for their knowledge after much effort. Clever people expand their studies, live in a quiet environment and keep away from evil. She explained that he should know this and, consequently, he would not be hurt.

As in many other domains, in the domain of learning too there is a traditional patron god – Wen Chenngdi  (wén)(chāng)() (literally: emperor promoting culture). This god, who is the patron god of students, scholars and examinations, is worshiped by students. In ancient times unskilled examinees would ask him for "divine guidance".  

He who learns without thinking is lost; he who thinks without learning is dangerous
Analects, II, 15) )
[Confucius said:] You![1] Would you like to know what is knowledge? – When you know something, you know that you know it, [and] when you do not know, you know that you do not know it. This is knowledge.
 (Analects, II, 17).

A parallel idiom:
He is wise who knows his ignorance. (Socrates)
A similar idea is found in the idiom:
He who knows that he does not know will have knowledge; he who does not know that he does not know will have no knowledge
The master said, "I was not born as a knowledgeable person; I love the past and I am excited to research it".
Analects, VII, 20). )
Whenever three people walk by, one of them will certainly be my teacher. I will select their good qualities and follow them, and change the bad qualities.
                                                      Analects, VII, 22))
The (Jewish) sages of blessed memory said:
איזהו חכם – הלומד מכל אדם (פרקי אבות, ד, א).
Literally: Who is wise? One who learns from all people (Pirkei Avot, 4, 1).
In the Bible it is written:
מכל מלמדי השכלתי (תהלים קי"ט, 99)
From all those who taught me, I grew wise (Psalms, 119, 99).



Literally: Does not know three.

Ignorant concerning the matter at hand – its beginning, middle and end.



 He who researches the past and thus learns about the present, is able to be a teacher

(Analects, II, 11).  

One should acquire knowledge from the past and implement it in the present.



The ancients studied for themselves; nowadays people study for others

(Analects, XIV, 24)

In the past people studied for self-development, whereas today people study in order to impress others.



The master said, "In education there is no class distinction"

Analects, XV, 39))



After ten years [of studies] anonymously behind closed shutters, once one succeeds, the whole world knows him

This is said by parents to encourage their children to study diligently.     



Literally: Ripe like a melon that falls from its stalk.

Said of a comprehensive and profound study, deeply knowing something, or knowing something by heart. 



Literally: After learning one knows that he does not know enough [and] after teaching one knows that there are [still] unsolved problems.

The more you learn, the less you feel you know, and the more you teach, you understand that there are still unsolved problems.



One cannot read all the books [in the world], [just as] one cannot walk along all the roads [in the world]

There is no limit to knowledge and learning



Literally: A scholar is not worried about worn out clothes but about having no goods in his stomach.

A scholar is not worried about his appearance, but about lack of knowledge.



A scholar can know about everything under the heavens without ever leaving his home

(Lao Zi)



 [In order] to learn good [things], three years [are needed], [whereas in order] to learn bad [things], three days [are needed]



Knowledge to the mind is what health is to the body

Without studying there is no achievement [and] without inquiring there is no knowledge



A scholar, though starving to death, will not sell his books



A person of noble character is not ashamed of learning [and] asking questions

The (Jewish) sages of blessed memory said:

לא הביישן למד  (פרקי אבות, ב, ה).

Literally: The shy will not learn (Pirkei Avot, 2, 5). 



Learning and culture, for a person, are what polishing and grinding are for jade


(jūn)()(xià)(xué)(ér)()(cháng)(shī)(xiǎo)(rén) (chǐ)(xué)(ér)(xiū)()(néng)

A person of noble character learns also from inferior people and does not limit himself to learning from one teacher, [whereas] small-minded people are ashamed to learn and to admit that they do not know



If you want to see a thousand miles farther, ascend another storey
Ascend farther, to look farther.

In French they say:

Celui qui est sur les épaules d'un géant, voit plus loin que celui qui le porte.

Literally: He who stands on a giant's shoulders, sees farther than the one who carries him.



All (literally: 10,000) occupations are inferior except studying, which is exalted

A common saying that was prevalent among scholars in traditional China.



A student is like a thirsty person who drinks from the sea or the river; if he drinks a great deal, he is greatly filled; if he drinks a little, he is little filled

[1] You (yóu), is (zhòng)(yóu), also called  Zi Lu ()(), the disciple of Confucius who was known for his hastiness. 



The teacher leads [the students] to the door; the continuation [of the study] depends on each of them



A scholar who follows Dao learns about the far away through the close by, about the past through the present, [and] about the invisible through the visible



The Yang Zi river does not refuse to receive water from small rivers, [just as] the mountain Tai is not choosy concerning the local stones reaching it

A person who loves to study will never refuse to receive advice or counsel from anybody.



Being keen to know without learning is like hoping to fish without a net      



A person who loves to study, his spirit continues to live after his death, [whereas] he who does not study, though alive, is like a walking corpse



He who has knowledge has power

The same idea is expressed in the idiom: 

. (zhī)(shi)(jiù)(shì)()(liang)
Knowledge is power

A term originally coined in English by Francis Bacon (1561-1626).



He who does not experience things, does not expand his knowledge

Wisdom follows experience.



Pale-faced scholar

A person without practical experience.

This is based on the following story:

In 450 CE Shen Qingzhi (shěn)(qìng)(zhī)became the commander-in-chief of the Song (sòng) (of the Northern and Southern dynasties) dynasty. The emperor of the Song dynasty wanted to invade the State of Wei (wèi) in the north, but Shen Qingzhi contended that the army of Song was inferior to that of Wei. The emperor asked two courtiers to discuss this matter with him. This made Shen Qingzhi very angry and he said to the emperor, "Ruling a state is like managing a household; one should ask the men workers about the work in the fields and the maids about weaving. Does your majesty want to discuss an invasion to the north with pale-faced scholars? This is ridiculous!" 



[After] reading a book one hundred times, [its content] becomes obvious



Always holding a book

Said of one who studies diligently

This is based on the following story:

During the Three Kingdoms period (220-266 CE), there was in the State of Wu () an exceptional general named Lu Meng ()(méng), who came from a poor family and had had no opportunity to go to school. Encouraged by the Duke of Wu, he began to read books and study diligently. Even when marching or fighting, he always found time to study and became a scholarly general.

Studying is like rowing a boat upstream; not moving forward means moving backwards
Literally: Lives until old age, learns until old age.
It is never too late to study.
An overturned vehicle in front is a warning to the vehicle behind it
One should learn from the mistakes of others.

If experience is not forgotten, it becomes as a teacher for the future
Give a fish to a man and you will remove his worries for a moment; teach him to fish and you will answer all his needs for a lifetime

When you do not know [something], ask [those who know], [and] when you cannot do something, learn [from those who can]
Man without studying will not reach great achievements, [just as] jade without carving and polishing will not become a jewel

A slightly different version, from the Three-Character Classic (sān)()(jīng):



Man without studying will not know how to behave properly, [just as] jade, without carving and polishing, will not become a jewel



He who inquires will expand his knowledge; he who is satisfied with his knowledge, will be narrow minded



He who [lives] near water will know about fish, [and] he who [lives] near mountains will recognize birds' chirping

In order to know a place or a person, one should be close to them.

It is important to research things in the place where they occur.

A slightly different version, from the Three-Character Classic (sān)()(jīng):
Man without studying will not know how to behave properly, [just as] jade, without carving and polishing, will not become a jewel
He who inquires will expand his knowledge; he who is satisfied with his knowledge, will be narrow minded
He who [lives] near water will know about fish, [and] he who [lives] near mountains will recognize birds' chirping
In order to know a place or a person, one should be close to them.
It is important to research things in the place where they occur.

Blue extracted from indigo is bluer than the indigo (plant) itself, [just as] ice is colder than water 
Said of a student whose knowledge is better than that of his teacher, or of a newcomer who is better than the one who preceded him.
This is based on a story from The History of the Northern Dynasties (běi)(shǐ),[1] where it is told about Kong Wangfan (kǒng)(wáng)(fān) , a teacher who was not ashamed to ask his students' advice.
Teachers and students develop each other

[1] The 15th of the 24 dynastic histories (èr)(shí)()(shǐ) (covering the period from 3000 BCE to the Ming Dynasty in the 17th  century), compiled by Li Yanshou ()(yán)寿(shòu) in 659 CE during the Tang dynasty.  
When learning, never become satiated, [and] when teaching, never become tired
Professors, professors, the more they teach, the skinnier they become
Pun: The word (shòu), meaning "professor", and the word (shòu) , meaning "skinny", are homonyms.
This would be said satirically, referring to the low salaries in the Chinese universities during the 1940s and again during the 1990s.
He who, when young (literally: black haired), did not study diligently, will regret it when old (literally: white head) [and] when it is too late to study 
He who teaches three years, teaches himself
A teacher learns from teaching.  
An unintelligent person who loves to study is preferable to an intelligent one who does not study
Literally: Thirty percent – gift from heaven, seventy percent – studies
Thirty percent of success is ascribed to talent [and] seventy percent - to studies.         

[1] For more on the Imperial examinations, see the chapter on ruling.
[2] Lu Buwei was appointed regent of the prince who was later to become Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di   (qín)(shǐ)(huáng)(). After the latter gained the throne, however, he murdered Lu Buwei.
[3] See the idiom One character [is worth] a thousand pieces of gold in the chapter on books and literature.

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