I'd like to share the practical wisdom in the essay "On Learning" by Xun Zi 荀子 劝学篇. A prominent Chinese Confucian philosopher, Xun Zi (312 B.C. to 230 B.C.) who lived right before China was unified as one empire ruled by the First Emperor of China 秦始皇帝 in 221 B.C. One of his students, Li Si 李斯, became prime minister of the new Qin Dynasty (221 B.C. to 201 B.C.)
Xun Zi (also spelled Xunzi today or Hsun Tzu before 1949) believed that human nature was fundamentally "evil," (性恶论) as opposed to his older contemporary Confucian philosopher, Mencius (Meng Zi), who argued that human nature was fundamentally "good" (性善论).
Though Xun Zi believed that human nature was fundamentally "evil," he advocated using education and life-long, moral learning to shepherd the human spirit and guide people to live with one another in a civilized manner.
Xun Zi wrote a number of philosophical essays. His essay "On Learning" was required reading in our Chinese literature class in the 1970s in Hong Kong. Even since I read "On Learning" when I was 17 years old, I have not been able to forget its content. Xun Zi's words, ideas, and ideals often come to me day or night. I'd like to read his essay in my native Cantonese dialect to commenorate his influence and to share his timeless views.
There are at least two excellent English-language translations of "On Learning." One is by Professor Burton Watson of Columbia University in his book, Hsun Tzu: Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963, begining page 15).
A more recent translation (shown below in a Word file with written permission by the publisher) is by Professor Eric L. Hutton of the University of Utach in the book, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy edited by Philip J. Ivanhoe and Bryan W. Van Norden (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2001, pages 256 to 261).
Immediately below is a Microsoft Word file that contains the original pages of Professor Eric Hutton's scholarly translation of the essay. I sought and obtained written permission from Hackett Publising Co., Inc. to display its contents.
Further below is my personal interpretation of Xun Zi. My goal is not to duplicate the excellent translation of Professor Eric Hutton. Rather, by paraphrasing Xun Zi, I'd like to help interpret his mind. If the essay has stayed with me for decades, it must have something of value to you too.
[The following is my attempt to interpret Xun Ziís mind rather than to translate his essay literally. My goal is to make Xun Zi's essay, which he wrote some 2,300 years ago, relevant to the needs and interests of readers in the West. Please view Professor Eric Huttonís excellent, scholarly translation of the original essay in the Microsoft Word file displayed in the above on this webpage. The original text in simplified Chinese is shown below my personal interpretation.]
We canít stop learning if we want to succeed in life.
The blue dye derived from the indigo plant is a far more vibrant blue than that of the plant itself. Ice, which is derived from water, is colder than water. With effort, you can enhance and realize your natural gifts.
When you bend a piece of wood into a wheel, you cannot make it straight again. Similarly, you can sharpen a piece of metal and turn it into a knife if you persevere. Learn something new every day and reflect on your experience, you can improve yourself and become wiser. You can tell right from wrong, and make better judgment.
Until you climb to the top of a mountain, you wonít know how high the sky is. Until you descend to the bottom of a valley, you wonít know how deep the earth is. If you donít read the great works by learned men and women of all ages and all lands, you wonít know how vast knowledge is.
We were born into different races and ethnic groups. When we were babies, we cried alike and sounded alike. By the time we grow up, we speak in different tongues and have different manners and values. This is because our particular environments and upbringing have made us so. Learning can help us overcome these barriers. We can educate ourselves so that we can improve not only our skills but how we live with one another. We can become good to one another instead of fighting with one another.
We may not change our Fate. But if we try to learn, and learn more effectively, we have a hand in changing our Fate.
Keep learning something new every day and youíll be on your way to discovering yourself and human nature. Providence blesses those who educate themselves. Providence is no more than the rules of Nature in action. By being curious and earnest in learning about human nature, youíll get close to understanding the meaning of all things. Self-education is the best education.
Many times I tried imagining things without asking questions from people who know or by looking things up. I got nowhere. By earnestly trying to learn and seek answers, I succeeded in gaining new knowledge and new insights. I tried standing on my toes in the hope that I could see more things in the distance. I finally realized that to really see more things in the distance, I should go up the hill and look. When you wave at people from the top of the mountain, your arms have not grown longer yet more people can see you. When you call out with the wind on your back, your voice has not become more powerful but more people can hear you. Why walk to Los Angeles from New York City if you can get there by plane? Why swim to China from America if you can fly there? We humans are not superior to animals. We are good at learning things and putting our knowledge to work for us.
There is a dove in the South called ďMeng Jiu.Ē These birds make beautiful nests with their feathers but they tie them with hair and soft reeds. The nests break when the wind gets strong. The eggs fall and the young doves die. Why build a golden palace on quicksand? The dove has taste but not knowledge.
There is a tree in the West called ďShe Gan.Ē It is only four inches tall but it grows on top of precipitous cliffs overlooking the sea. The tree is visible to all not because it is tall but because it knows how to position itself.
Pigweeds that grow on hemp become straight because they know how to use the hemp for support. Mix white sands with mud and you will sully them. You can use the root of a type of orchid to make perfume. But if you soak the same root in putrid water, the resulting perfume will smell bad. All these examples point to one lesson: choose the right neighborhood to live in and good teachers to learn from. You are as good as the company you keep. Stay away from evil so that you can avoid being evil.
Everything in life has a cause. Honor or shame reflects your character.Worms and maggots appear when meat and fish rot. If you forget to be prudent in your actions, bad things will start happening to you. If youíre too rigid in your attitude, you shut yourself from new ideas. But if you are too loose with your standards, youíll lose your principles. Fire goes where it is dry and water goes where it is low. A blooming forest attracts the ax. You put up a target and people will throw darts at it. You reap what you sow.
You can bring about honor or shame with every action. Donít you see how critical it is to learn and to become a better person each day? This is because you want to promote goodness and avoid peril. By learning constantly, and by learning how to learn through daily reflections, youíll build up your character. Your character is your destiny.
If you pile up small quantities of earth every day, you can create a mountain over time. The mountain will make wind possible, which in turn brings in the rain.If you channel small streams and connect them, youíll create a lake, which in turn will bring about aquatic life. If you keep doing good deeds for people and be kind to them, no matter how small each deed may be, youíll have cultivated the heart of a saint. Take even a few steps each day and youíll finish a journey of a thousand miles. The ocean is but an amalgamation of rivers. The mythical unicorn canít reach heaven in one leap. An old horse that does not cease running will bring you home.
If you give up easily, you canít even break a rotten piece of wood. If you donít give up, you can carve gold into shape. Earthworms have no bones and claws but they can go up and down the earth. Crabs, with their six claws and two pincers, canít even make their own homes without taking over holes already made by snakes and eels.
Have faith in your work. Keep up your spirit. Learn to sustain the hard times and the many failures that will invariably test every hero who dares to make a difference in this world. Those long and seemingly endless, gloomy skies only make the day of your arrival that much more brilliant. Miracles await the hero who perseveres.
You canít walk both east and west at the same time.No byways of evil will lead to the highway of virtue. You canít work for two employers at the same time and not get fired. You canít eye two objects at the same time and see anything. You canít hear two persons who speak at the same time and know what theyíre talking about. The ringdove in the mulberry tree feeds its seven young doves with utmost composure. It is not frazzled by all the constant demands of the young. A good learner is like the ringdove. He is single-minded in achieving a goal in which he believes. A good learner stays focused and steadfast at all times.
Hold your head up high. Focus on your mission in life. You can achieve any goal in life if you persevere. As long as your ideal is virtuous, and as long as you avoid being distracted by the ghosts in your own heart, you will be able to cultivate a unity of soul and spirit. Your united soul and spirit will help you triumph over adversity. Donít stop learning and you will discover who you are. You will have found yourself. You will be one with yourself.
The legendary musician Hu Ba plays his zither and the fish will listen. The ancient Bo Ya plays the lute and the horses stop running. No voice is too small to be heard. People see your character from the way you conduct yourself. A hill with jade has a grassy look. A canyon with pearls has a pleasant sheen. If you keep doing good work and stay away from abusing people, you wonít need to worry that nobody knows about you. Good business comes to those who do good deeds.
Where do we start to learn and when do we stop learning? We can start by reading the great books of all ages and all lands. The next step is to find your own good teachers and learn from them personally. Observe how your good teachers conduct themselves. Learn from the ways and manners by which they treat other people.Learn by actually taking action and reflecting on how your actions work out. By accumulating small tasks that are done right, youíll achieve great success.
If you work on something long enough, youíll become an expert. Do not worry that you donít know where to start. Start anywhere that interests you; and donít hurry the journey we call Self-Education. The only time to stop learning is when we die. Our bodies may perish, but our belief in the benefits of self-education must never die. This is because we know that if we ever stop improving ourselves, we will revert to our animal self. There is no need to act like an animal if you believe in being civilized.
History teaches us what has happened to our forefathers and what will happen to us if we ignore their lessons. Poetry teaches us the strings of the heart and how we can achieve inner peace. Rules, laws and regulations teach us how to live with our fellow human beings. The goal of learning is to learn how to live with other human beings in the best possible manner. If you can learn how to manage yourself and the people around you, you will have developed a good character. You will have understood the way of Nature.
A good learner is someone who takes what is learned to heart. Your conduct speaks volumes about what youíve learned. A bad learner is someone who treats learning as commodities. No sooner has he bought something than he discards it. He does not take anything he has learned seriously.One minute he is right and the next minute he is wrong.
A good learner can motivate himself because he feels that he has a worthwhile goal in life. Good learners, unfortunately, are not the majority. Most people get an education because they want to impress other people, to acquire a diploma, get a job, and to keep up appearances. They lack a fire in their belly.
If you give people advice when theyíre not looking for it, you are being arrogant. If people ask you a question and you keep talking endlessly, youíre being irrelevant. A good learner is someone who knows how to respond appropriately.
There is no greater way to learn than to find your own best teacher. You can read all the great books of the ages but you still need to find a teacher who can help you put things in perspective. The teacher will breathe life into lifeless words and meaning into mere imageries. Above all, your teacher helps you learn by being an example. We learn by watching how our teachers conduct themselves. They put wisdom into practice.
There is one essential requirement in finding your own best teacheróyou must earnestly love and respect the person.If you treat your teacher like a commodity, you are treating yourself like a consumer. That is not respect. When you donít have real respect for your teacher, you learn in a mechanical and perfunctory manner. You may look the part but you have no charm. You mouth off platitudes that you donít believe in. It is as if you were trying to scoop up water in the ocean with a hand and five fingers opened, or to pulverize grains with the tip of a spear.
Love and respect your teacher if you truly love and respect the act of learning. The process of learning is like the process of a ritual. You go through the ritual because you believe that it signifies something important.
Respect the fact that there are limits to your power over others. You canít control how people behave. By observing and respecting your limits, you will be able to manage yourself and treat other people appropriately.
If someone asks you a question that is inappropriate, donít answer. He is crossing the limits of proper behavior.If someone tells you something that is not appropriate, donít listen. You donít want to get involved. If someone wants to pick a fight, donít participate. Be prudent in how you relate to other people.
You can sense if someone genuinely needs your advice. You can tell when someone sincerely wants to open up to you. You can tell by the tone, the choice of words, and the look on the personís face. The best time to give advice is when the seeker is sincere. When he or she is sincere, you can tell the truth to the king, queen, or leader of a nation and be able to help effect a change, regardless of your social position.
A good shooter never misses the target.You canít reach home if you stop at the doorstep. To be a good learner, you have to learn to be consistent with what you say, do, and value. If your ideals and values conflict with one another, you are not a good learner. Youíve merely acquired knowledge. The essence of learning is unity of deed and thought. If one minute you make good sense and the next minute you mouth off nonsense, you have not arrived at perfection.
A truly educated person understands the meaning of perfection. He or she behaves with balance and virtue through constant learning and practice. You will know if you have achieved perfection. When your conduct is perfect, you feel that you are in harmony with people and with Nature. You make decisions and you are at peace with them. Power cannot sway you. Money cannot buy you. Society cannot bend you. You are one with yourself and with Nature.