The Great Learning in Ancient China (Part 1)

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In 2011, a professor at a forum in Davos, Switzerland discussed why China’s education system for the past several decades has been unsuccessful. He said that China’s education system does not attach importance to creativity and one’s moral character. One of the reasons he says is, “…because we have been educated to tell lies since elementary school. We have gradually developed our deception step by step.” He went so far as to say that if all schools in China were to shut down, knowledge would decrease dramatically, however, Chinese moral standards would greatly increase. The professor makes a valid point about China’s failing education system. Higher education institutions and students can be found everywhere in China today, but no master-level talent emerges. On the contrary, academic cheating is common practice, many teachers are not virtuous, and students have high academic grades but without substance. What is the reason behind this? We will find the answer when we compare the education system of ancient China to today’s China. “The foremost ingredient to establishing a country or developing people is education.” In traditional Chinese culture, virtue was the root of a country. Therefore, everyone including the emperor and common folk regarded cultivating oneself as the root for settling down or continuing with one’s pursuit in life. Teaching meant educating people. The most important part of teaching was to cultivate noble virtues. As stated in The Analects of Confucius: “Learning knowledge is not the root of teaching. What comes first is to cultivate virtue such as filial piety and brotherly love, compassion, respect and sincerity. If time permitted, he may go to learn knowledge afterwards.” It also states in The Great Learning how ancient people followed their way of learning. The Great Learning was originally one chapter in the Book of Rites. It was said that it was written by Confucius’ student Zeng Shen. The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean (also included in the Book of Rites), The Analects of Confucius, and The Mencius together are called “The Four Books” by later scholars. In ancient China, children went to elementary school at the age of eight. They began learning the basic rituals and daily housework along with etiquette, music, archery, Chinese characters and mathematics. At the age of 15, those with good grades went to college to study the ways of rectifying the heart, self-cultivation, managing the family and ruling the country in order to become well-cultivated individuals with noble character. They applied the principles of self-cultivation to dealing with personal relationships and issues between countries. They also applied the same principles to ruling the country. The first sentence in The Great Learning states that the goal of learning is, “To cultivate the great virtue endowed by heaven and reach the realm of greatest compassion.” Once compassion is developed, it can be used to manage people. To manage people, one should be close to and love them. An emperor should be compassionate; an official should be respectful to the emperor; a son should be filial to his parents; a parent should be affectionate; and friends should be sincere to each other. Everyone should try to reach the realm of greatest compassion. It also states in The Great Learning that, “Advocating virtue comes after ruling the country; ruling the country comes after managing the family; and managing the family comes after self-cultivation.” Then, what is self-cultivation? Self-cultivation is focused on the cultivation of virtue and ethical values. Ancient people studied the principles of matter to obtain knowledge and seek the Tao. During the process, they were enlightened to the ultimate regulations of matter’s development and the great Way, which they used as their guiding philosophy in their behavior. They rectified their mind, purified their heart and sincerely cultivated themselves. A person with great virtue, righteous behavior and knowledge will naturally have the ability to manage the family, rule the country and prevail over the world with peace. Such an important Confucian classical work contains fewer than 2,000 Chinese characters, but it states the fundamentals of education. The goal of teaching is to raise a child to become an independent and dignified adult of great virtue through self-cultivation. Judging a great person has nothing to do with his/her age, knowledge, strength, wealth, or nobility, but with a person’s character. The greatness of The Great Learning lies in its “advocating virtue”, requiring people to remove the negativity from their minds and constantly improve their moral standard. Thus, a great man stands between heaven and earth in a dignified manner. He is compassionate, wise and brave. How much responsibility a person can shoulder all depends on how broad his heart, how great his virtue and how refined his talent is.

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