Why We Attend School 1

Han, Yu (768 A.D.-824 A.D.)

    One morning the teacher of a group of aristocratic students entered the Imperial Academy 2. He summoned the students to the front of the library and said,

    "You can master a skill if you apply yourself, but too much play can make your skill rusty. A good moral reputation can be achieved by careful consideration and can be destroyed by carelessness. Now the great emperor and the wise Prime Minister have established various facilities to govern people. We weed out the mean and evil, and appoint and glorify the kind and talented. Anyone who contributes a minor thing is rewarded. Anyone with skill in a specialty is hired. Officials blanket the country to search for talented people and choose the best to serve our country. Our government trains people to succeed in the same way that one maintains kitchenware: scraping them clean and then polishing them. It has happened that someone was hired by luck, but it has not happened that a talented person has gone unrecognized. You students only have to worry about not mastering a subject. You do not have to worry that recruiters will not recognize your talent. You only have to concern yourself with moral achievements. You do not need to worry about the unfairness of government officials."

    Before the teacher finished his words, a student in the ranks laughed, "You lie to us! We have been your students for many years 3. Your mouth never stops reciting the Six Bibles. Your hand never stops leafing through various philosophy books. If a book records events, you will make a summary of it. If a book illustrates a theory, you will figure out its essential meaning. You are greedy for knowledge and work hard to acquire it. You want to solve all problems, no matter if they are large or small. You burn tallow to stretch daytime and are determined to study continuously all year long. It can be said that you pursue your career goal very diligently.

    "You block out heresy and reject Buddhism and Taoism 4. If there is a gap in Confucianism, you try to fill it. If there is a subtle point in Confucianism, you will expand and develop it. You search for the lost threads of extinct knowledge, and retrieve the ancient learning by personally collecting documents from many sources. You block a hundred rivers of thoughts and direct them eastward 5, and gather roaring waves that are falling apart 6. On the subject of Confucianism, it can be said that you have made great contributions.

    "You are immersed in Confucianism as if it were vintage wine. You chew the most flowery words and taste the most delicate meanings. You write essays and compile them into books which fill your house. Since you began to imitate Yao and Si 7, your writings have become broad and deep. You learn to write intricate passages by studying “the edicts of the Zhou dynasty” 8 and Ying-pan 9, whose complicated sentences twist your tongue. You learn to argue rigorously from Spring-Fall 10. You learn to write epic stories from Zuo's extended version of Spring-Fall 11. You learn the rules of nature from the unusual book, The Bible of Changes 12. You learn virtue and beauty from The Book of Poetry 13. You also learn other writing skills from the modern books: Zhuang-zi 14, The Lament in Exile 15, and Chinese History 16. When you read the poetry of Zi-yun Yang and Xiang-ru Si-ma 17, you discerned their similar ingenuity despite their differences in writing style. With regard to writing, it can be said that your meaning is rich and profound, and you are able to express yourself incisively and vividly.

    "When you were a child, you understood the importance of studying and were brave in the cause of virtue. As an adult, you gained wisdom and did everything appropriately. In terms of integrity, it can be said that you live up to your ideals.

    "However, in public issues, the government does not trust your proposals. In private matters, no friends will help you. Like the old wolf in the poem, you can move neither forward nor backward 18. You incur blame at every turn. You were a censor for a short period of time. Later you were demoted to the southern primitive area. You have been an instructor at the Imperial Academy for three years. You are powerless and achieved nothing in politics 19. You always fail as if your fate were your enemy. On a warm winter day, your children cry because they feel cold. In a bumper crop season, your wife cries because there is no food in the house. Your head is bald and your teeth have fallen out. It is likely that these conditions will continue until you die, so what is the use of studying? You should worry more about your financial security, and less about telling us what to do."

    The teacher said, "That is interesting. Please come forward, sir! Thick wood is used for beams. Thin wood is used for rafters. A bo-lu 20, a zhu-ru 21, a wei 22, a threshold, a latch, and a jamb are various parts of a building. To make every little part work with other parts so that the building may function requires a carpenter's craft. Sanguisorba, cinnabar, gastrodia elata, gyrophora, plantains, green mushrooms, lycoperdon, and used drum membranes are collected and stored as medicines for various diseases. Such a comprehensive collection demonstrates the preparation of a good physician. To wisely use talented people, to make fair choices, to maintain diversity, to carefully measure one's ability (delicate work through a methodical pace is beautiful; a distinguished scholar is like a crane standing among a group of chickens), and to fill government positions based solely on talent is the strategy that the Prime Minister adopts.

    "In the past, Mencius loved to argue so that the meaning of Confucianism could be clarified. He spent his life traveling all over China to persuade the kings to follow his political ideals, but no kings in China were interested in them. Kuang Xun 23 was virtuous and promoted his great philosophy. However, he had to go to the State of Chu to escape slander. Later he lost his position and died in Lan-ling City. The words of these two great scholars were instant classics, and their actions were the examples that we strive to follow. They were outstanding and came to be regarded as sages. However, their achievements brought them nothing but misfortune and disaster.

    "Now even though the teacher is diligent in study, he fails to rise to inherit the mantle of Confucius. Even though he talks a lot, he fails to focus on an essential point. Even though his essays are excellent, they have no practical use. Even though he is virtuous, few people recognize his good deeds. However, he receives a salary and food from the government every month. His son does not know how to cultivate crops. His wife does not know how to weave cloth. When he goes out, he rides horses with his entourage. At home he sits at ease to eat. His work is mediocre and he has no special talent. He reads ancient essays in order to plagiarize rather than to inspire his imagination. However, the great emperor does not punish him, and the Prime Minister does not reject him. He should be thankful for his luck. The criticism that he incurs at every turn has made him well-known. It is appropriate that he has been put in a powerless position. If he were not satisfied with his salary or position, were to forget the limitations of his ability, and were to try to point out his supervisor's shortcomings, it would be like those who blame a carpenter for not using a stake for a column or like those who blame a physician for asking his patient to use an energy booster and while taking a laxative himself."

1 In this essay, the teacher represents the author, Han. Han complained that, based on academic and moral achievements, he should have earned an important position like Prime Minister rather than becoming a teacher for aristocratic heirs. Therefore, Han made up this story which implied that the students would not listen to him because he was a living example that diligent study will not be properly rewarded. After the ones in power read this essay, Han was reappointed to a better position as a Research Fellow at the History Institute.

2 The Imperial Academy was the school that taught the heirs of the officials in the emperor's court. It employed two great scholars as its instructors.

3 Han was appointed to be an instructor in the Imperial Academy several times between 902 A.D. and 911 A.D.

4 This was because Buddhism and Taoism advocated pessimism.

5 "Direct them eastward" means "direct all schools of philosophy into the sea of Confucianism".

6 This phrase means "do one's utmost to save a desperate situation".

7 Yao and Si refer to the two chapters titled "The History of Yu Dynasty" and "The History of Xia Dynasty" in The Canon of History, compiled by Confucius. Emperor Shun, who founded the Yu dynasty, was born in Yao City. The surname of Emperor Yu, who founded the Xia dynasty, was Si.

8 The Canon of History has three chapters that analyze the edicts of the emperors in the Zhou dynasty.

9 Ying-pan was an emperor in the Shang dynasty. The Canon of History has three chapters discussing him.

10 Spring-Fall, the annals of the State of Lu (722 B.C.-484 B.C.), was written by Confucius during the Spring-Fall Period.

11 Zuo’s extended version of Spring-Fall, based on Confucius' Spring-Fall, was written by Qiu-ming Zuo, the Official Historian of the State of Lu during the Spring-Fall Period.

12 The Bible of Changes was compiled by Confucius.

13 The Book of Poetry was compiled by Confucius. It contains 305 poems, and is divided into four parts: Customs, Etiquette, Protocols, and Odes.

14 Zhuang-zi was written by Zhou Zhuang, a cofounder of Taoism with Lao-zi. Zhuang was born in Meng County of the State of Song during the Warring States Period.

15 The Lament in Exile, the earliest long poem in Chinese History, was written by Yuan Qu, a native of the State of Chu during the Warring States Period.

16 Chinese History was written by Qian Si-ma in the Han dynasty. It records events from the reign of Emperor Huang to that of Emperor Wu who ruled during the Han dynasty.

17 Zi-yun Yang and Xiang-ru Si-ma were great poets in the Western Han dynasty.

18 The poem "A Wolf Walks on the Grass" in the chapter titled "The Poetry of the State of Bin" in The Book of Poetry says,
"An old wolf walks on the grass,
Trailing behind his sagging neck
And dragging his falling tail."
Mao's Interpretations say, "The neck of an old wolf droops low and touches the grass. When the wolf moves forward, its neck somehow pulls him back. When the wolf moves backward, its falling tail is stuck on the ground." (The wolf does not even have the strength to erect its tail.) This sentence in Han's essay means that the instructor was in a dilemma.

19 There is a Chinese saying: if one excels in studying, one should become a government official to utilize one’s talent.

20 A bo-lu was a wooden square block supporting beams and girders.

21 A zhu-ru was a short pillar on a roof truss.

22 A wei was a socket for a door post.

23 Kuang Xun was born in the State of Zhao during the Warring States Period. He argued that human nature is originally bad and that one should learn virtue and manners to improve one's moral standing. He wrote Xun-zi, a book with thirty-three chapters.