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Understanding Life through the Lenses of Cultural Tradition

Date: 2021-04-23
When I was a small child, I was not sent to formal schools but kept at home to read the classic pieces of Chinese literature. The first one was the Analects of Confucius. I was not asked to be extremely accurate about the texts, as I was still too young, but to try to get the message behind and recite the words. These ancient words of wisdom helped me get through many difficulties in my later life. They shaped my understanding of life and are validated in my life experiences. This is exactly the ideal of traditional Chinese education—to build personality. Xunzi, an ancient Chinese thinker, put it this way in his writing The Importance of Learning (Quanxue), “The goal of honest learning is self-improvement.”

Before venturing into the Analects of the Confucius, I spent my childhood days memorizing poems from the Tang Dynasty. Reading aloud and memorizing is an important way to learn ancient Chinese poems because it enables the reader to feel the emotions behind. Even if you cannot memorize them, at least hear yourself reading them. I used to read out loud whatever I could find. Nobody stopped me. As time went by, I began to appreciate better the emotions, beliefs and values behind the poetic rhythms.

I strongly believe that if a person learns to read and recite ancient poems as a young child, he or she will be more imaginative and empathetic in study and life as a adult. Some ask how children are able to appreciate the philosophy and emotions of ancient thinkers. There is no need to worry about this. Dr. Yang Zhenning, the world-leading physicist, once described a learning approach called “permeation”, “As one sets out to learn something, even if he is not grasping it all at one, the stuff he is trying to learn is already finding its way into his mind bit by bit…Learning by feeling something is a very important method.” I fully support Dr. Yang’s view. The use of one’s senses and emotions in acquiring knowledge, as apposed to intellect, can produce a profound impact on the learner’s mind and character. Learning ancient poems by heart is an exercise of such a method.

As the learner grows up, he or she will develop a better understanding of the classic texts, which reflect the thoughts, emotions, aspirations, and beliefs that make up the essence of the Chinese culture. The purpose is not to memorize the texts themselves, but to appreciate the message through one’s life experiences. When I was teaching abroad, my students were very fond of my classes despite my poor English; because the truth in the poems I taught appealed directly to their heart.

“The wild geese are making their way down south
Their sky formations speak about a longing for the future,

Time flies in life
But dreams strike their roots deep
Waiting for the next season to blossom”

I wrote this Huanxisha when I was 90, looking at the lotus flowers in Nankai University. It is not about my personal life or longings, but about our country and culture. I may be growing old, but I still hold on to my dreams. I am waiting for the seeds of poem to be firmly planted in the young hearts. I am waiting for them to grow into sprouts, flowers, and fruits.