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.








Resilience in a Cold Season

Sima Qian, “Biography of Bo Yi”

Although scholars’ books are extremely numerous, we can still check their veracity with the Six Classics. Although the Odes and Documents are incomplete, we can know the writings of Yu and Xia. When Yao was planning to abdicate, he gave his throne to Yu Shun. With Shun and Yu, all of the court and provincial officials first recommended them, then they took on trial positions, and then, after handling official business for a few decades and putting together some achievements, they received the reins of government. This shows that the realm [literally “all under heaven“] is a precious treasure, that the ruler is the great unifier, and that transferring control of the realm is extremely difficult. But some people say that when Yao offered the realm to Xu You, Xu You would not accept it, felt ashamed, and fled into seclusion. Then during the time of Xia there were Bian Sui and Wu Guang [who refused the throne and then drowned themselves]. How are we able to say all this? The Grand Historian says: I climbed up Winnow Basket Mountain, and on top of it there was what was said to be Xu You’s tomb. When Confucius listed humane people, sages, and worthies from antiquity, he was detailed in his discussion of Taibo of Wu and Bo Yi’s class. According to what I heard about Xu You and Wu Guang, they were supremely righteous, but we know little of their writings. Why is that?

Confucius said: “Bo Yi and Shu Qi did not keep the former wickednesses of men in mind, and so had little use for resentment.” He also said: “They sought to act virtuously, and they did so; what was there for them to feel resentment about?” I felt sorry for Bo Yi’s desire, and when I read the poems he left behind I found them exceptional. His biography is as follows:

Bo Yi and Shu Qi were sons of the Lord of Guzhu. The father wanted Shu Qi to succeed him as lord, but when the father died, Shu Qi offered the throne to Bo Yi. Bo Yi said: “It was father’s will [that you take the throne],” and fled. Shu Qi, unwilling to ascend the throne, also fled. The people of the kingdom offered the throne to another son. When Bo Yi and Shu Qi heard that Xibo Chang was good at taking care of the elderly, they returned together. When they got back, they found that Xibo had already died, that his son King Wu had mounted a wooden spirit tablet designating him as King Wen, and had gone east to attack King Zhou of Shang. Bo Yi and Shu Qi stopped his horse and remonstrated, saying: “Your dead father has yet to be interred, yet you take up arms. Can this be called filial? Can a minister assassinating his lord be called humane?” The people with King Wu wanted to slay them, but he said: “These are righteous men,” and allowed them to depart. Even after King Wu had pacified the disorder of Shang and all the realm accepted the authority of Zhou, still Bo Yi and Shu Qi felt shame, and for the sake of righteousness would not eat the grain of Zhou. They hid themselves on Shouyang Mountain, and lived on ferns. Eventually they starved to death, and before dying they made a song. Its words go: “We climb the western mountain and pick its ferns. Atrocity upon atrocity, do they not know their wrong? Shennong, Yu, and Xia have left, where shall we go? Oh death, life has been hard!” Then they starved to death on Shouyang Mountain. Considering all this, did they feel resentment? Or no?

Someone said: “The way of heaven shows no partiality; it always follows good people.” Can we call Bo Yi and Shu Qi good people? They always behaved humanely and purely, yet starved to death like this. Moreover, among his seventy disciples, Confucius honored Yan Hui alone as someone who “loves to learn.” Hui was “always poor,” and didn’t mind eating the husks of grain, yet died young. Is this how heaven repays good people? The bandit Zhi killed innocents everyday, thought human flesh a delicacy, gave free rein to his viciousness, and assembled a gang of several thousand to run roughshod over the realm. His behavior knew no check, and he intentionally violated all prohibitions. Yet all his life he lived in comfort and pleasure, and the wealth he accumulated lasted generation after generation. And those who never make a single step without examining the ground before them, who never speak a single word without considering the situation at hand, who always keep to the beaten path and never strive for anything unless it’s right and proper, yet meet with disaster—they are too many to count. I am very confused at this. If there is a so-called way of heaven, is it fair? Or not?

Confucius said: “Those who follow different paths cannot make plans together,” they simply follow their own aspirations. Thus he said: “If it is right to seek fame and fortune, then even if I must be a groom with whip in hand to get them, I will do so. If it is not right to seek fame and fortune, then I will follow after that which I love.” “Only when the season grows cold do we know that the pine and cypress are the last to wither.” Only when all the world is filthy do the pure become visible. Isn’t it because they care much for that, and little for this?

“The gentleman dislikes the thought of dying without leaving behind a good name.” Jia Yi said: “Greedy people seek after wealth; heroic people seek after fame; self-important people die for power; regular people just want to stay alive.” “Lights reflecting brighten one another, and things of the same kind seek one another.” “Clouds follow the dragon, and winds follow the tiger. The sage appears and all look to him.” Although Bo Yi and Shu Qi were worthy, their names did not become well known until Confucius. Although Yan Hui earnestly studied, his comportment did not become illustrious until he joined a great master. The scholars hiding in the cliffs and caves are employed and abandoned depending on the times in such a way, and the greater part of their names have vanished from people’s lips. Isn’t it sad! With regular people in the alleys and streets, even if they want to polish their behavior and establish a name for themselves, if they don’t have an eminent scholar to follow, how can they leave a legacy to later generations?








From Shiji 史記 (Records of the Grand Historian), Liezhuan 列傳.

Note: For a previous post on the author Sima Qian, see Traveling and writing.

Snow on the Lake

Zhang Dai (1597-1689), “Watching the Snow from the Mid-Lake Pavilion”

In the twelfth month of the fifth year of the Chongzhen reign [1632 CE], I was living at West Lake. It heavily snowed for three days, and on the lake the sounds of men and birds all disappeared.

This day, after the first watch I pulled out a small boat, and clad in a fur coat with a small stove, I set out alone for the pavilion in the middle of the lake to watch the snow. In the veil of fog and icy mist, the sky and the clouds and the mountains and the water above and below, all was white. The only shadows in the lake were a line for the long dike, a dot for the pavilion in the middle of the lake, a blade of grass for my boat, and two or three specks for the people on the boat.

When we got to the pavilion, two people had laid out blankets and were sitting facing each other. A boy was warming wine and the stove was just starting to boil. When they saw me they were very happy, and said: “How’s there another one like this on the lake?” They pulled me over to drink together. I was forced to drink three big cups and then took my leave. I asked their names. They were visiting here from Nanjing. When we got off the boat, the boatman muttered, “Don’t say that this gentleman is crazy; there are others just as crazy as him.”





From Tao’an mengyi 陶庵夢憶, juan 3.

Cf. the translation in Yang Ye, Vignettes from the Late Ming: A Hsiao-p’in Anthology (University of Washington Press, 1999), page 90.

Study hard! part 3

Sima Guang (1019-1086), “Exhortation to Study”

To raise a son without teaching him is the father’s mistake.
To instruct students without being strict is the teacher’s laziness.
When the father teaches and the teacher is strict,
Then not succeeding at learning is the son’s own fault.
Dressing warmly and eating well, you should also understand human relations.
When you just stare back at me smiling, you’re no different from a clump of mud.
If you can’t ascend the heights, you’ll fall into the lower ranks.
And if you have the chance to meet with a worthy, talented man, you won’t be able to respond to him.
I encourage you young ones, energetically seek an instructor.
Entrust yourselves to an enlightened teacher, and you won’t confuse yourselves.
One morning you’ll ascend to the clouds
And announce your name and fame to your ancestors.
In your chamber, if you have not yet tied the knot,
Beauties will come to seek your hand.
Work hard all of you! And start studying early,
Don’t wait for old age to come, and then vainly regret it.


From Guwen zhenbao 古文真寶 (True Treasures of Ancient Writing), juan 1.

Study hard! part 2

Emperor Renzong of Song (1010-1063), “Exhortation to Study”

When I look upon someone without learning, there is nothing with which to compare him.
We might compare him to plants and trees, but among plants there’s the numinous fungi, and among trees there’s the fragrant mahogany.
We might compare him to birds and beasts, but among birds there’s the phoenix, and among beasts there’s the unicorn.
We might compare him to manure and dirt, but manure feeds the five grains, and dirt nourishes the common people.
Among the limitless variety of things in the universe, there’s nothing that compares to someone without learning.


From Guwen zhenbao 古文真寶 (True Treasures of Ancient Writing), juan 1.

Study hard!

Emperor Zhenzong of Song (968-1022), “Exhortation to Study”

To enrich your family you needn’t buy fertile fields,
Books yield grain a thousand fold.
To make your house comfortable you needn’t build great chambers,
Within books are rooms of gold.
To take a wife don’t worry that you lack a good matchmaker,
Within books are beauties like jade to behold.
To make your way in the world don’t worry that no one will follow you,
Within books are horses and carts manifold.
A man must diligently study the Six Classics before the window
If he desires to achieve his life’s goal.


From Guwen zhenbao 古文真寶 (True Treasures of Ancient Writing), juan 1.

Women’s voices, past and present

Lu Qingzi (1522 ~ 1572), “Preface to Xiang Lanzhen’s Draft Writings Trimmed from the Clouds

The task of preparing food and drink has long been our duty as women. When we are sick and prohibited from attending to these things, we write poetry emulating the styles and voices left behind by past women. Poetry has never been the occupation of great men; actually, it’s something that belongs to us. It’s a pity that I lack the belletristic skill to transmit the aspirations of my models. I truly felt ashamed of myself for this, but then I obtained a rich harvest from Mrs. Huang. A rare beauty in a famed boudoir, she sends her writings out from her distinguished gate. Erudition has been transmitted down through her family, and now she adorns the achievements of her ancestors. Dipping her brush, she spontaneously composes, and with every flourish and application she creates a certain mood. Elegant and enchanting, her writing furnishes every possible wonder. It dazzles viewers’ eyes and startles their hearts. This is something that would be difficult even for a great litterateur, but to you it will appear as easy as pulling a pearl out of a sack. If she was not a great literary talent in a former life, how could she be capable of this?

Women of our kind have gradually diminished in number, and the few works that survive are wrongly transcribed by those who affect sympathy with us. Their stupidity makes these works seem like worthless chaff in a year of famine. If, in the future, some are moved and stirred to action by Mrs. Huang’s writing, could they not surpass their predecessors? Thus, if you know the sound of jade striking gold, I expect that you will surely achieve your dream of becoming a great writer in our glorious era. I encourage you with these words because you are my friend; please don’t refuse them. Read Draft Writings Trimmed from the Clouds once, and everything around you will become jade ornaments glittering in the mountains. Truly, the people there will not lack for anything! I add these few words, dedicating them to the Snow-Praising Studio [Xiang Lanzhen’s studio].

Note: Lu Qingzi was a famous writer and recluse. Many of her writings celebrate female friendship. This preface, written for a book by her friend Xiang Lanzhen, is notable for redefining poetry as a female activity. For a biography of Lu Qingzi, see Lily Xiao Hong Lee, Sue Wiles, eds., Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang Through Ming, 618-1644.

See also Grace Fong’s translation of the same piece in Kang-i Sun ChangHaun SaussyCharles Yim-tze Kwong, eds., Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism (Stanford University Press, 1999), 267-273.




In Gujin nüshi 古今女史 (Lady scholars, past and present), juan 3.