Learning is the lifeblood of an individual as well as a whole nation. The Chinese are admired for their diligence and capacity for learning. Past and present stories about diligent students who are not afraid of hardships and tenaciously seek knowledge and answers to questions are countless. These stories embody the learning spirit of the Chinese people who pursue learning for four main purposes: the mastery of new skills and knowledge, self-cultivation, obtaining honor and fame, and using knowledge for practical applications. The formation of this view on the purposes for lifelong learning is related not only to the application of knowledge to improve people’s lives but also to humanistic Ruist thought and to the vast amount of knowledge required in the civil service examinations.
Learning is a challenging process and many obstacles stand in the way of its pursuit, such as unsatisfactory learning environments, insufficient financial support, and lack of basic tools to facilitate learning. In ancient times, Lu Wenshu (fl. 80–60 BCE) used reeds for writing tablets because he couldn’t afford to buy paper; Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072) had no money to buy writing brushes so he wrote on the ground with dried rushes; Kuang Heng’s (fl. 48–30 BCE) family was too poor to buy lamp oil so he enlarged a hole in his wall to increase the size of the light beam shining in from the wealthier household living on the other side; Che Yin (ca. 333–401) read by the light of captured fire flies in a jar; Fan Zhongyan (989–1052) separated pickles and ate only one at a time with his porridge to save money for tuition. In the modern era, the mathematician Shing-Tung Yau (Qiu Chengtong, 1949–) walked for hours daily to attend school as a young boy. These stories of famous learners throughout history show the possibility of overcoming limited circumstances and hardships to pursue knowledge. A true scholar must have unrelenting perseverance and be willing to make great sacrifices. Starting off strong and ending with a whimper, giving up quickly, being weak in commitment, and unable to resist distractions all stand in the way of learning. Tenacious learners of the past include Confucius (551–479 BCE) who punctiliously practiced his zither in order to advance his musical skills, and Bing Yuan (d. 217) who gave up drinking and became an itinerant scholar and master teacher after eight years of hard work. In modern times, there is the example of David Ho (He Dayi, 1952–) who did not know a single English word but overcame this language barrier in only six months and is now an international authority in HIV research. The experiences of these scholars reveal how they strengthened their resolve and made great efforts to fulfill their commitment to learning.
The greatest enemy of learning is self-satisfaction. If one’s ego stands in the way of seeking guidance and advice from others, one can never ascend to the pinnacle of knowledge. The Tang court painter Zhou Fang (730–800) is known for circulating his sketches and seeking critical comments in order to improve and advance his art. The Ming scholar Song Lian (1310–1381) is famous for always asking questions when he was a student, overwhelming and impressing his teacher at the same time. In modern times, Cheung Yuen Yee (Zhang Yuanyi), the highest-scoring student of the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination, never hesitated to ask questions. She not only overcame many barriers during her one-year stay in Hong Kong studying for the exam, but also aced it. Such diligent learners continuously improved their knowledge and skills with their high-spirted commitment to learning and their humble search for answers to satisfy their curiosity.
The Chinese proverb “one is never too old to learn” encourages a positive lifetime attitude. In the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220), the distinguished physician Zhang Zhongjing (150–219), was accomplished enough to be called the “Sage of Medicine,” yet throughout life he remained humble, diligent, and keen to learn. Whenever Zhang heard of a doctor with brilliant skills, he disregarded time and distance and sought advice from the rival. In the Three States era (220–280), the well-known general Lü Meng (178–220) seized every chance to improve his literary skills, often until midnight, despite being fully occupied with pressing military matters. Lü Meng’s capacity for learning impressed his superior Lu Su (172–217), whom he succeeded as the frontline commander. In the Southern Song dynasty (906–1127), the patriotic poet Lu You (1125–1209) did not stop learning until the day he died. He named his study, brimming with books, the “Learning until Death Hut.” These historical figures, already in possession of extraordinary achievements, continued their lifelong learning and gained greater success and new breakthroughs in knowledge.
If a person merely learns by rote without a curious mind, the most he will become is a bookworm. After gaining book knowledge and testing it through empirical experience in the world, we are better able to digest information and understand all of its ramifications and applications. The Northern Song scientist Shen Kuo (1031–1095), employed by the Bureau of Astronomy, placed great emphasis on empirical learning. He was able to precisely identify the location of the North Star as a result of his tireless field work on the night sky. In the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), the physician Li Shizhen (1518–1593) personally experimented with medicinal herbs and revised many incorrect conventional medical remedies. The modern sinologist Jao Tsung-i (1917–) traveled all over India and found previously unpublished documents that enabled him to make a ground-breaking study using Indus script and Chinese oracle bone script. These stories reflect the spirit of determination and perseverance of the Chinese nation toward learning. They also reveal that since ancient times, Chinese scholars, with inquisitive minds, have refused to follow the crowd, and have harnessed their interests and passions to benefit mankind.