Selected Modern Chinese Essays: My Interpretation of On the Teacher

By Liao Mosha

Elderly people aged over fifty must have read Han Yu’s On the Teacher. Quite a few remarks in this essay are worthy of contemplation by present-day teachers and pupils. Take the following for example:

“Confucius says: ‘Out of three men, there must be one who can teach me.’ So pupils are not necessarily inferior to their teachers, nor teachers better than their pupils. Some learn the truth earlier than others, and some have special skills — that is all.”

Han Yu wrote this essay to defend himself against the attack of his time on his having accepted some disciples. In his opinion, having disciples was not something to be surprised at because, as a teacher, he was not necessarily better than his disciples in every way, nor his disciples always inferior to him. As a matter of fact, one who has learned the truth earlier than you, no matter who he is, should be acknowledged as a teacher. You need not ask whether he was born before or after you because what matters is the knowledge that he can impart to you. Nor should you presume him to be omniscient. So long as he excels you in one respect, you should learn from him and call him your teacher. This advice of mine is addressed to pupils, and teachers as well — teachers whose duty it is “to pass on the truth, impart knowledge and dispel ignorance”.

“Pupils are not necessarily inferior to their teachers, nor teachers better than their pupils” — that is a truth, not a fallacy. There is no impassable demarcation line between teacher and pupil. While a teacher may be superior to his pupil in one branch of knowledge, the latter may be superior to the former in another. While the teacher may be superior to his pupil today, the latter may be superior to the former tomorrow. That demonstrates the law of dialectics and the unity of opposites. A kind of interplay exists between teacher and pupil. The pupil should learn from his teacher, but sometimes there may also be something the teacher has to learn from his pupil.

A similar idea is expressed by the following well-known passage quoted from Xueji (The Subject of Education), a chapter of the ancient book Liji (The Book of Rites): “However nice the food may be, if one does not eat it, he does not know its taste; however perfect the doctrine may be, if one does not learn it, he does not know its value. Therefore, when he learns, one knows his own deficiencies; when he teaches, one knows where the difficulty lies. After he knows his deficiencies, one is able to examine himself; after he knows where the difficulty lies, one is able to improve himself. Hence, ‘teaching and learning help each other;’ as it is said in Yue Ming, ‘Teaching is the half of learning.'” The above quotation from Liji, which lays emphasis on self-examination and self-improvement, is less thoroughgoing than what Han Yu says about education. Nevertheless, its remarks such as “When he teaches one knows where the difficulty lies”, “Teaching benefits teachers as well as pupils” and “Teaching is the half of learning” (a quotation meaning teaching and learning are opposite and complementary to each other) all remain irrefutable to this day.

To be a teacher, one must at the same time be a student, or be a student first, just as Carl Marx says, “Educators must themselves be educated first.” Though this is plain truth, yet people in their practical life seldom recognize it. It is especially hard for teachers of long standing or those with “special skills”, as Han Yu says, to look at this matter dialectically.

It is not without reason or cause that teachers fail to be readily receptive to the above-mentioned concept. The viewpoint “Pupils are not necessarily inferior to their teachers, nor teachers better than their pupils”, though put forward by Han Yu, himself a feudal-minded scholar typical of his time, was by no means popular in the feudal age. On the contrary, as teachers were ranked high up along with “Heaven, Earth, Sovereign and Parents” as objects of worship in the feudal age, pupils could never be on an equal footing with their teachers to form a unity of opposites. After all, a teacher was a teacher. His teaching profession was dignified, sacred and inviolable. A pupil was a pupil. He was never expected to surpass his teacher. The practice has come down from the past and become customary.

The new relationship between teacher and pupil should be that of, in the words of Han Yu, “not (being) ashamed to learn from each other.” That is to say, teacher and pupil should teach each other and learn from each other. They should teach each other as equals regardless of seniority, so that, as Han Yu says, “Whoever knows the truth can be a teacher.”

Pupils should show the spirit of respecting the truth, learning from whoever knows. Teachers should be so open-minded as to be ready to learn from anyone who knows, just as Confucius says, “Out of three men, there must be one who can teach me.”

Han Yu, going by Confucius’ teaching, asserts that “a sage has no definite teacher”, meaning that a really wise and learned person has no fixed teacher and that he learns from whoever knows. I think I may as well add, “No teacher is all-knowing,” meaning that no teacher is infallible. A teacher should have the courage not only to hold firmly to the truth but also to admit his mistake. All devoted teachers might as well put this into practice so that they can strive, together with their pupils, for scientific knowledge and the truth.

On the other hand, however, pupils should also understand this: when they discover a teacher’s weak point in a certain respect, they should not jump to the conclusion that he is no longer qualified as a teacher, because the weak point in one respect does not mean the weak point in all respects and, likewise, the strong point in a certain point does not mean the strong point in all respects. Students of today, shouldering a great historical task, should deeply understand how limited their knowledge is and how important it is for them to learn modestly from all those who have knowledge and strong points, especially teachers who “have special skills”! That is all I can say about On the Teacher.