The joy of learning

Confucius said: “To learn something and apply it at the appropriate time: isn’t this wonderful? To have friends visit from afar: isn’t this delightful? To remain unconcerned when others don’t recognize your talents: isn’t this the mark of a leader?”

Even though it’s only three sentences long, the first chapter of the Analects does an admirable job of introducing two of the most important themes of Confucian thought: namely, the importance of learning and guidance on how a leader (君子/ jūnzǐ) should behave.

Unlike today when ministers and bureaucrats never tire of telling us how “passionate” they are about learning, Confucius was genuinely radical in promoting his belief that every boy, no matter what his social station, should have the opportunity to imbibe the wisdom of the classics.

Confucius’ advocacy of universal learning played an important role in planting the intellectual seeds that ultimately led to the development of the Imperial Examination System ((科舉/kējǔ), which was established during the Sui Dynasty in the early seventh century – over a thousand years after his death.

Under this system, even the son of a poverty-stricken farmer had – in theory at least – the chance to become a government official if he passed the rigorous examinations after years of grueling study.

Of course, it was generally the sons of wealthy families with enough money to fund their long education who passed the examinations, but there were enough instances of students from poorer backgrounds succeeding to ensure widespread faith in the system and to inspire generations of young men to study hard in order to follow the “China Dream” of official advancement through academic achievement.

Although the Imperial Examination System was finally abolished in 1905, its spirit still lives on in the form of China’s ferociously competitive university entrance examinations in which millions of young people fight for one of the extremely limited number of places available in the country’s leading higher education institutions.

Given the huge pressures they are under, I’m not sure that China’s students necessarily share the same enthusiasm for learning so eloquently expressed by Confucius in the first sentence of the Analects. Then again, the sage himself might also have a few opinions of his own on how to put the pleasure back into it.

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