Selected Modern Chinese Essays: Is the Ear Less Reliable than the Eye?

◎ Gu Junzheng

In the play Cai Wenji, newly written by venerable Guo Moruo, reference is made to jiao wei qin, a zithern partly made of scorched wood by Cai Yong, father of Cai Wenji. Recently, after I saw the play on the stage, my mind naturally went to jiao wei qin and its story.

Cai Yong disliked playing up to bigwigs and, to avoid frame-ups, he went into exile in the South, wandering about for twelve years in Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces. It is said that one day during his stay in Suzhou when he heard the crackling of firewood from his next-door neighbour at cooking time, he knew the familiar sound came from paulownia, a kind of choice wood best for making zitherns. Now, talking it over with his neighbour, he was given the piece of scorched wood, which he subsequently made into a zithern. This musical instrument, when played, turned out to be extremely pleasant to the ear. People called it jiao wei qin because the tail of its soundboard was made of scorched wood.

When I think of the story, I cannot help having doubts about the validity of the proverb, “Seeing is better than hearing.” Fact is, to know the material world, we sometimes use not the eye, but the ear. That Cai Yong could tell the quality of wood by listening to its crackling sound while it was burning in the kitchen stove makes it crystal clear that “hearing” is not necessarily less reliable than “seeing”. The above-mentioned proverb literally means that secondhand experience is less reliable than firsthand experience, which is perfectly true. But, if we should take this saying at its face value and regard the ear as invariably less reliable than the eye, we shall do the former a gross injustice.

While we agree that the eye is the main source of direct experience, we must admit that it is also most misleading. Take a most common example. We all agree that the sun is much bigger in the early morning than at noon. But if we take a photo of it in the early morning and at noon respectively, we shall find it of the same size in both cases. Who would have thought that, when it comes to this common phenomenon in our daily life, people the world over should have been fooled by their own eyes ever since time immemorial? The optical illusion has indeed landed us in indescribable trouble. Not only were great ancient sages like Confucius stumped by the question why the sun was seemingly bigger in the early morning than at noon, even scientists of today have failed to give a wholly satisfactory explanation. This is a keen satire on those having blind faith in the eye.

Of course I do not mean to deny the role played by the eye. All I want to show is that although the eye has an extremely wide scope of activities, it is, nevertheless, far from being faultless. We should, therefore, never overtrust the eye and underestimate the usefulness of the ear.

Although the ear has a smaller scope of activities, its functions are not confined to listening to conversation or music only. It has other specific functions of its own. Under certain circumstances, it is not only worthy of the saying, “Let the ear do duty for the eye,” it can even excel the eye.