“Who” translates,as my surname homophonously and sometimes humorously connotes, is not a somebody. On the tedious long journey of translation, I still have a lot of room for improvement in terms of bilingualism and cultural knowledge despite more than 10 years of persistent efforts in the field. If you find anything amiss in my writings, please feel most welcome to point it out. I expect to learn with you all through Yi Lu Tong.
It’s less than a month away from the semiannual CATTI session. All of you, I believe, are toiling hours away in preparation. But hang on. Why are we tiring ourselves out in an endless sea of test topics ? The “hong bao snatch” game in that you-know-what online store seems way easier!
Now I think of someone who might have had a few words to say about this question. I am not referring to Sun Jing, Su Qin or Kuang Heng, the best-known examples of a studyholic spirit in ancient China. If not, who is it then ?
It‘s a man of the West Jin Dynasty named Zuo Si and styled as Zuo Taichong. According to historical records, he was typically an ancient version of what is depreciatingly known as "academic slag" in China today. He was neither good-looking nor fluent in speech when he was young. Very little did he show talent in the fancies of men of letters, namely stringed music, chess, calligraphy and painting. This often got him into trouble with the tutor. Even his father had given up hope for him and sometimes sighed to his friends, "My son is not remotely as good as when I was his age."
The young Taichong grew up with so much negativity that sometimes he did wonder if he truly had what it took to fare well in the academic environment, until one day he overheard his father complaining to a friend about his “disappointing son.”
What an epiphany it was for Taichong as he thought to himself : I am slow and can’t do well in music and calligraphy, but I can read and I love to decode the messages hidden between the lines. Why not study harder ?
From then on, the strong-minded Taichong devoted his mind to learning, though no historical reference suggests that he became a self-torturing studyholic. He persevered, never ashamed to ask and learn from those who were then considered as his inferiors. Slowly his knack for literature started to arise, first from his long poem entitled “qi du fu (Ode to the Capital of the State of Qi),” which he finished only within one year. Some parts of the manual, unfortunately, had been lost.
Later, when Taichong turned 23, his sister was selected to the court as a concubine. As such, all his family moved to the capital city of Luoyang.
It was around this time that he started to write the famous “san du fu (Ode to the Capitals of the Three Kingdoms of Wei, Shu Han and Wu).”
And how he was obsessed with it! He had stationery laid by the gate, in the courtyard, and in the bathroom, so that he could jot down whatever came to his mind.
He also traveled around to visit renowned scholars and humbly learn from them. Feeling short of insight and knowledge, he applied for the position of Book Keeper, a rough equivalent to librarians today, so that he could access ancient classics and read as much as he’d like.
This composition took him ten years to finish. Initially, his work was poorly recognized given his low social status.
Then, by a stroke of luck, he met the prestigious scholar Huang-fu Mi in Luoyang and wasted no time in presenting his work. After reading it, the scholar left him with profuse praise and a preface.
Soon word spread and “san du fu” became a sensation; it became so popular that rich and aristocratic households in the capital lined up to copy the manual (Printing had yet to be invented at the time), causing a shortage of paper supply and a spike in its prices. This is the origin of the Chinese four-character idiom, 洛阳纸贵 luò yáng zhǐ guì, a popular reference to one’s work being all the rage.
Fortunately, an upsurge of fame and gain didn’t go to Taichong’s head. He continued to be a patient and diligent learner and went on to create more unfading masterpieces, such as “yong shi shi (Poem on History)” and “jiao nue shi (Poem on My Dearly Beloved Daughters),” in an unpretentious, pithy language. His works were compiled in “zuo taichong ji (A Collection of Zuo Taichong’s Works) by later generations.
On the bureaucratic ladder, he also took one firm step after another, from the lowest rung of being a petty official all the way up to some high court positions.
What is it we should look at in Taichong as a learner ? Is it his hard-working and strong spirit ? Or his belated success ?
Neither. From his experience I see the essence of learning.
The Confucian thought recognizes eight essential levels of learning. All starts with human understanding of natural phenomena so that knowledge can be expanded to the fullest, so that sincere thoughts can be achieved, so that the heart can be rectified, so that character can be cultivated, so that households can be well-regulated, so that the state can be righteously governed, so that peace can be brought to the world. All utilitarian motives generated thereby should not be treated as the true purposes of learning.
In “Of Studies,” Francis Bacon wrote: “Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight, is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment, and disposition of business. For expert men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one; but the general counsels, and the plots and marshalling of affairs, come best, from those that are learned.”
From the Chinese affective notion of home-state to the Western emphasis on individualism, different cultures tend to agree on why learning should be pursued. Back to the topic of CATTI preparation, although a good test score seems much desirable, what lies at stake is the process in which candidates get to improve their bilingual skills. Contradicting would be the idea of leaving it to chance or studying only for the test. Such behavior would also lead to a shameful failure to honor the learning spirit. May you pass the test, put what you have learned to practice, and march toward your true pursuit in life.