Selected Modern Chinese Essays: Learning and Personal Inclination

◎ Liang Shiqiu

Scholars of the older generation often urge young people to develop interest in learning because they themselves have been enjoying the real pleasure of academic studies. And they are ever ready to cite their own example by way of advice, in hopes of enabling young people to gain access to scholarship in an enjoyable way. For example, the distinguished scholar Liang Qichao once said wittily, “I always stand for interest-ism. If you broke down Liang Qichao’s stuff into its component parts, there would be nothing left except an element named ‘Interest’.” Mr. Liang was a man of profound learning who attached much importance to interest. He attained great academic success because he pursued scholarly study solely for its own sake, without any ulterior motive. A man who is really interested in learning sometimes does act like one possessed. He forgets his approaching old age and works hard even to the neglect of his meals and sleep. Isn’t it but natural for a man of such devotion to have great scholarly achievements? But, though Mr. Liang’s later works, such as those on method of historical studies, political and ideological history of the pre-Qin days, as well as those on Mohism, Buddhism and Tao Yuanming, were motivated by his personal inclination, can the same be said of his younger days when he was a pupil chanting ancient Chinese books under a private tutor? Was he motivated by his personal inclination while learning to write stereotyped essays and poems prescribed for the imperial civil service examinations? No, I think not. Generally speaking, the so-called interest begins to exist only when one is mature enough to engage in independent studies. It is improper, I am afraid, for young people to overstress the importance of interest while they are still in the period of learning the basics of knowledge. Interest will never develop where no solid foundation has been laid for learning. There is no denying the fact that Mr. Liang owed his wide erudition and unusual literary talent, for the most part, to his good grasp of foundation knowledge.

I have come across a great many bright and diligent young friends who have done exceedingly well in their studies, but are rather weak in Chinese. They cannot even write a letter in correct Chinese. When I asked them why, they said they were not interested in the Chinese language. Some, though they can write beautifully, detest the study of mathematics and physics, and barely managed to pass the examinations in them. When I asked them why, they said they were not interested in them. They cast away whatever subjects they dislike like something utterly worthless. They are so smug and thick-skinned that they speak volubly in defence of their own attitude like champions of interest-ism. They hardly realize that there is no learning but is capable of engendering interest and that all depends on how to search for it. You will develop a liking for learning if, under the guidance of a good teacher, you study to discover new horizons opening up before you one after another by following the proper order and advancing step by step. On the other hand, you will find learning as dry as sawdust and feel frustrated if you refuse to go into a subject in depth or even make impetuous advances without following the proper order. People with an average natural gift are equally capable of mastering the basics of liberal arts and natural science. They are never predetermined by nature to be good in one subject and poor in another. It is laziness and waywardness, however, that causes one to give himself up as hopeless and back down on the pretext of “no interest”.

Primary and secondary school will impart to you only some rudiments of knowledge. Even what you learn during the four years of university will be something quite superficial too. A university has often been misleadingly referred to as “the highest seat of learning”, which sounds as if there were no more learning to speak of beyond it. The research institute of a university, however, is the place for preliminary scholarship. But even there you get only the first taste of learning and the emphasis is on research methodology and practice. Art is long, life is short. That is why some of our ancients continued to study even when they were hoaryheaded. They were, of course, motivated by an enormous interest in their studies.

During the preliminary stage of learning, from primary school to college, it is better to advocate discipline than interest. A properly arranged school curriculum, like a cookbook on nutritionally well-balanced food, must include all the useful and indispensable courses — courses which are equally important and obligatory. The so-called electives mean only some little option within the scope of a certain item. A well-educated person is like a professionally trained Peking opera singer. While undergoing the training, he must observe a most exact discipline. He must pay equal attention to singing, acting and acrobatic skills, and learn to play different roles. It is not until he has finished the all-round training that he begins to develop his own speciality according to his personal disposition. Laying a solid foundation for learning will be of great lifelong benefit to you. Of all the school subjects during the preliminary stage of learning, languages and mathematics are the most important. Languages serve as a tool for reading and communication. Without a good knowledge of Chinese, you will find it difficult to express yourself. Without a good knowledge of a foreign language, you will find it difficult to absorb new knowledge from abroad. Mathematics makes for logical thinking. Other subjects also have their respective uses. It is hard to say which is more important. Physical education, for example, is also extremely important from another point of view. In short, while in school, we should temporarily put aside our personal liking and patiently observe school discipline so that we may temper ourselves and become solid stuff. Don’t hurry — there will be a time for you to find relish in learning in the days to come.