Han Yu, “On Teachers”
Scholars in ancient times always had teachers. A teacher is someone who imparts the right way to do something, administers your studies, and dispels your confusion. People aren’t born already knowing things. Who can be without confusion? If you’re confused and don’t find a teacher, how will your confusion ever be dispelled?
People born before me will of course understand how to do things better than me, so I take them as my teacher. But if someone born after me also understands how to do things better than me, then I’ll also take them as my teacher. My teacher is just the right way to do something. Who can tell whether the person who understands the right way to do something will be older or younger than me? So it’s not a matter of being noble or lowly, old or young. Wherever the right way to do something is, that’s where my teacher is.
Oh! It’s been a long time that no one’s imparted the way of teachers! It’s difficult for people to not be confused! The ancient sages were far superior to regular people, and they still sought teachers when they had a question. Most people today are far inferior to the ancient sages, yet they feel shame at studying with a teacher. This is why the sages became more and more sagely, and stupid people are becoming more and more stupid. Isn’t this what makes sages sages, and stupid people stupid?
People hire teachers to teach their children because they love their children, but when it comes to themselves, they feel shame at taking a teacher. This is confusion! And the teachers of their children just teach how to write and parse sentences while reading—that’s not what I call imparting the way and dispelling confusion. Say one person doesn’t know how to parse sentences and the other is confused with no way to dispel it. One takes a teacher and the other doesn’t. Studying the minor and neglecting the major—I’ve never seen that lead to understanding.
Healers, musicians, and artisans feel no shame at taking one another as teachers. But when it comes to the gentry, then as soon as someone mentions the word “teacher” or “student” everyone makes fun of them. If you ask why, they’ll say: “They’re both about the same age, they should be equally adept!” For them, studying with someone of lowly position is a source of shame, and studying from someone of high official rank verges on flattery. Oh! No one can ever again understand the way of teachers! Healers, musicians, and artisans aren’t the social equals of gentlemen, but nowadays gentlemen can’t reach their level of wisdom. Isn’t that strange?
The sages had no fixed teacher: Confucius studied with Tanzi, Chang Hong, Shi Xiang, and Laozi. None of these people were as worthy as Confucius, but Confucius said: “If I see three people walking down the street, there must be one among them who might serve as my teacher.” So students are not necessarily inferior to their teachers, and teachers are not necessarily more worthy than their students. Some people learn how to do things before others do, and different people specialize in different fields of study, that’s all.
Pan of the Li family is seventeen years of age, loves ancient writings, and is thoroughly versed in the six arts, classics, and commentaries. Not allowing current fashions to constrain him, he asked to study with me. I admired his ability to put the ancient way into practice, and wrote “On Teachers” as a gift to him.