Poetic exchanges

子曰:「誦詩三百,授之以政,不達;使於四方,不能專對。雖多,亦奚以為?」Confucius said: “Imagine a man who can recite the three hundred poems of the Book of Songs by heart but is unable to carry out his job when given an official post or proves to be incapable of responding on his own initiative when sent on a mission to another state. No matter how many poems he may have memorized, what use would they be to him?”

In Confucius’s time, court and diplomatic discussions were carried out in a ritualistic fashion in which the participants made extensive quotations from the Book of Songs (詩經/shījīng) to emphasize their points and make appropriate allusions to similar incidents in the past.

While memorizing the contents of the Book of Songs was an important first step for aspiring officials, it was nowhere near sufficient for them to engage in such verbal sword play. They also had to be able to develop the mental dexterity required to take the initiative and respond effectively to the specific questions they were faced with by learning how to apply this knowledge in practical situations.

As Confucius points out, if an aspiring official fails to do that “no matter how many poems he may have memorized, what use would they be to him?”

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