This document is part of the Festschrift in Honor of Charles Speel, edited by Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James E. Betts and published by Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois in 1997. The Table of Contents for this volume can be accessed here. If you have any questions, you may contact Tom Sienkewicz at

The Importance of Learning in the Ancient East

As Illuminated by Confucian Aphorisms

Cecil Brett

The Confucian influence extended to those Eastern societies located within the China cultural orbit, namely Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, not to mention overseas Chinese communities everywhere. In China, itself, Confucianism has provided the indispensable mainstay of a system of education that is more than two thousand years old.

Confucius lived from 550 to 479 BC, when many schools of thought flourished. One, for example, was a quietist doctrine developed by Lao-Tze. One of his sayings was, "to attain knowledge, add things; to attain wisdom, remove things."

Confucius was of a more practical and secular turn of mind. He accepted the existence of other-worldly beings, but his advice was, "honor the gods but keep them far from you."1 He wished to improve the world and believed that, by conscious effort men can improve themselves and their society and, by so doing, help bring about, harmony in the cosmic order, of which the world is a part. His passion was duty--moral duty--the reciprocal duties of father to son, of husband to wife, of subject to ruler. He laid down a host of rules of social behavior.

Over time there came to be added elements extraneous to the original teachings of the Master--such things as literature, poetry, history, astrology and, bordering on the occult, divination and geomancy.2

One Confucian scholar of the period, mentioned in Tu Weiming (1993:6), advanced a theory likening the cosmos to an egg of which the Celestial Kingdom is the yolk.

It was this mixed bag of theories, dogmas, precepts, scraps of knowledge and hocus pocus, called Confucianism, that became the literary body of the educational system.

The instrument used to push forward this learning enterprise was a practice, adopted by emperors more than two thousand years ago, to recruit civil officers by means of competitive literary examinations--what today we would call the merit system. The System survived until the early years of this century. China can thus claim to have been the oldest and longest enduring meritocracy in the history of the world.

Some of the sayings of the ancient sages can be rendered without effort into an equivalent modern idiom. One, to give an example, describes an ignorant man whose intellectual horizon is somewhat limited. "Who sits in a well and observes the sky does not see very much." An American response might be "Hey! those guys know about tunnel vision."

Learning, generally speaking, means literacy. In old China only the upper classes or gentry had the leisure and the means to afford the costs of private schools and tutors. For the child this meant committing to memory the thousands of ideographs. Rote-learning was the rule involving endless hours of tedious practice with the brush and inkstone. "Every character must be chewed to get out its juice."

In the Confucian scheme of things, learning comes next to godliness. An old proverb, which in translation may sound less than elegant, says "to rear a boy without educating him is to rear an ass; to rear a girl without educating her is to rear a pig." The ass, a common beast of burden; the pig, the marriage dowry given by the bride's family.

Learning as an end in itself was held in high esteem by the lettered as well as the unlettered. "All pursuits are mean in comparison with that of learning." "Learning is a treasure which follows its owners everywhere." "The scholar gains entry into a fraternity of scholars." What higher praise for the savant than the following proverb? "Scholars are the country's treasure; learned men are the richest ornaments of a feast."

The high esteem accorded to the man of letters and the scholar official tells us there can have been no lack of incentive by ambitious young men to prepare for the Imperial examinations. But how did this particular examination practice come about? The late John Fairbank (1992:66), Harvard historian, offers what he calls some tentative answers. Confucian scholars happened to be serving as advisors to the Emperor and were able to persuade the Son of Heaven that their classical learning could offer insight and hidden meanings only erudite scholars could bring out. Only they could counsel him how he could fit into the cosmos and in turn be affected by it.

Yet another discerning perspective is offered by the late Yale historian, Arthur Wright:

The literate elite had entered into an alliance with the Monarchy. The literata provided the knowledge of precedent and statecraft that could legitimize power and make the state work.

It must be assumed that the Emperor sought the advice of this exquisite elite of court philosophers on the qualifications of civil officers and whom to appoint. And thus the examination practice came into being (Fairbank 1992:67).

Fairbank notes that the self control and hard work of the scholar-to-be preparing for the examinations "tended to crowd out frivolity, sexuality, muscular development, and even spontaneity."An old adage speaks of "to pursue one's studies by the light of fireflies and snow." The story was told that two such young men diligently studied by reading books in summer by the light of fireflies and in winter by the reflection of starlight from a quantity of snow (Buchanan 1962:147). There was the belief that reading by itself does not produce knowledge. A proverb says "three years of reading is not so good as hearing the explanation." This, according to the translator's note, refers to the ordinary method of first committing the books to memory, and afterwards listening to the explanation of them.

To qualify for the Imperial examinations which lasted one week a candidate must have passed muster in elimination tests at county and province level. A degree was awarded to those successful, of whom only a very small number received official appointments.

Many who failed to get the coveted prize may have been consoled by "though you cannot obtain office you are still a degree holder" and "the scholar gains entry to a fraternity of scholars" along with the universal respect accorded to the savant and the status of a member of the gentry. The educated but non-degree holder may have been told, "he who fails to become a perfect scholar may still become a magistrate's clerk."

The magistrate, was, as it happens, the imperial officer in the county best known and closest to the people, and the chief law enforcement officer. County and city officials and the commander of the local army garrison were beholden to him. Those civilians appearing before him, regardless of social rank, were required to kowtow--literally, to knock the head on the floor. The magistrate dispensed summary justice in his court. Sentences, some lenient, some severe, were swiftly carried out. Beheading was not infrequent. The magistrate's clerk, despite the unprepossessing title, was a big wheel in the county. He had to be learned, have a sharp mind and the street smarts to know who was who and who was up to what. In other words, the eyes and ears of the magistrate.

Those scholar-officials in the imperial capital may have found their work somewhat less demanding than that of the magistrate but perhaps no less intellectually fulfilling, as they shuffled back and forth between the yamen and the tea house, engaged in scholarly disputation. Huang writes of the visit to China in 1553 of the Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ricci "who marvelled that the nation was governed by a large number of philosophers."

His account of the late Ming period offers some insight into the life style of the scholar official. It is best rendered in his own words: "While the whole era seems stagnant and uninspiring to us, this may not have been the feeling of those who lived through it. Especially for the members of the gentry-official class who were content with the status quo, the social tranquility and atmosphere of changelessness were not unrewarding. Once he had achieved prominence through the civil service examinations, a member of the social elite was rather secure, with the income of a middle-level landowner or above. Real estate changed hands completely, connected with the rise and fall of families caused by one's success and failure in the exams. In the absence of an economic pulsation to compel everybody to better himself ceaselessly as we modernists are subjected to, one could fulfill several years' public service and then retire early to live in comfort if not in extravagance" (Huang 1992:172).

The Confucian based system of recruiting civil servants came to an end with the fall of the Manchu Dynasty. It was obvious that Confucian pedagogy, with its authoritarian emphasis, was out of step with the equalitarian doctrines of Sun Yet-Sen or the collectivist ideas of Mao Tse-tung that came after. Indeed many would say it is long outdated.

Can this old rag-tag bundle of notions and quaint sayings called Confucianism meet any need in today's fast-paced world? Most realists would likely answer, "Confucianism belongs with the dinosaurs." But we are dealing, let us not forget, with the "inscrutable Orient." We are reminded of the adage, "the crust of custom is hard to break." A cautious scholar might consider it highly adventurous to jump to the conclusion that Confucianism is dead. Indeed, the Master himself, if here today, would undoubtedly quote the old proverb, "the wise man, when in doubt, will not count upon it."

An article in an early 1995 issue of the Economist states that the present Chinese government appears to have given official approval to Confucianism. It refers to a public meeting which was held in Beijing six years ago to commemorate the birth of Confucius. The now President of the People's Republic, Jiang Zeiming, told the assembled audience that "he fondly recalled the Confucian influences in his upbringing." The chairman of the meeting, a prominent Communist leader, said that Confucianism represented "the mainstream of Chinese culture." The same magazine in a recent issue indicated that Lee Kuan Yew, the former long-time President of Singapore, a nation that today authorizes the teaching of Confucian doctrine in its public schools, has visited China frequently "where he extolled Confucian precepts at fashionable conferences in Beijing in honor of the sage."3

It appears undeniable that Confucianism is being recycled. The Economist article notes that the codeword is now "Asian values," meaning "commitment to education, family, loyalty, subordination of the individual to the group, and a quiescent attitude to authoritarian rule, and in which government assumes the role of the Father in the family."

Some scholars in seeking an explanation for the surprising economic success in what were, not so long ago, called the "backward" or "developing" countries of the Orient, have reasoned that Confucian ethics, which stresses the claims of the community over the individuals, provides the key.4

Dr. Samuel Huntington, in a thought-provoking article, "The Clash of Civilizations," argues that non-Western values, specifically Confucian and Islamic, will present a major challenge to the West's (read World Community's) ideological legitimacy.5

With due respect to the distinguished Harvard historian, is it conceivable, by any stretch of the imagination, that this "Asian Values," this worn-out recycled Confucianism, might take the world back to the Middle Ages? The very thought would call into question a tenet central to the American belief system. What would become of freedom, motherhood, and Coca-Cola?

All of this, of course, is in the realm of speculation. Further conjecture would be idle. Perhaps the Master should have the last word. "When the arrow is on the string, it must go."

Works Cited

The Analects of Confucius.

Buchanan, Daniel C. 1962. Japanese Proverbs and Sayings. Norman: Oklahoma University Press.

Fairbank, John King. 1992. China: A New History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Huang, Ray. 1992. China, A Modern History. Carlsbad, Cal.:Sharp.

Scarborough, W. 1964. A Collection of Chinese Proverbs.

Tu Weiming. 1993. The Confucian World Observed. Honolulu: East-West Center.


1. The aphorisms quoted are, with one or two exceptions, from The Analects of Confucius; Buchanan 1962 and Scarborough 1964. Some of the so-called "Confucian" aphorisms are believed to be the words spoken or written by the Master, himself, and by his disciple, Mencius, others by known contemporary or former philosophers--all of which would become a part of the Confucian tradition.

2. Divination is supposed to predict what is going to happen in the future. Or it could mean to discover truths by communicating with supernatural powers. Geomancy is supposed to foretell the future through such devices as observing the cracks on a burned ox's skull or by the configurations made by randomly throwing down a handful of rocks.

3.The Economist, January 21, 1995, pp. 39-40.

4. The Economist, January 21, 1995, pp. 39-40.

5. Foreign Affairs, Summer, 1993, pp. 21-49. Professor Huntington writes: "Western civilization is both Western and modern. Non-Western [Confucian and Islamic] civilizations have attempted to become modern without becoming Western. To date only Japan has fully succeeded in this quest. Non-Western civilizations will continue to attempt to acquire the wealth, technology, skills and machines and weapons that are part of being modern. They will attempt to reconcile this modernity with their traditional cultural values and interests. Their economic and military strength relative to the West will increase. Hence the West will have to accommodate to these non-Western modern civilizations whose power approaches that of the West but whose values and interests differ significantly from those of the West."

Speel Festschrift Table of Contents

Return to Monmouth College Department of Classics Homepage