Huai Su's Autobiography or Autobiography of Huai Su 懷素自叙帖 翻譯 英譯 Translation - Vincent's Calligraphy

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Huai Su's Autobiography:
Modelling (Shu Version), History, English Translation and A Preliminary Study
懷素自叙帖:
(蜀本)歷史 英譯初步研究
by KS Vincent Poon (潘君尚)  
Jan. 18 2017
Published on www.vincentpoon.com

Part I: Modelling - by KS Vincent POON








A model of "Huai Su's Autobiography"
臨 懷素自叙帖 (蜀本)
35  X  137cm (4)
Click to Enlarge. In reserve, not available in Shop.

Part II: History - by KS Vincent Poon

a) Background
Huai Su (懷素, 725-785 AD or 737-799 AD ) was a Buddhist monk in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) and was known for his elegant and wild cursive script, even in his times (1,2).  His calligraphic accomplishments were considered in par with the legendary "Sage of Cursive Script (草聖)" Zhang Xu (張旭, 675-750 AD).  This particular piece, Huai Su's Autobiography  (懷素自叙帖), was written in 777 AD during Huai Su's later years and is considered today to be one of the best written cursive script works in Chinese history (3).

b) Synopsis
The magnificent Autobiography can be divided into four main parts:

1. A very short introduction of Huai Su written by Huai Su himself, including the whereabouts of his own hometown, his becoming of a Buddhist monk at an early age, and his passion for Chinese calligraphy.

2. A description of Huai Su's calligraphic accomplishments, extracted from the preamble of "A collection of poems devoted to Master Huai Su's cursive script" (懷素上人草書歌) (4,5), originally composed by one of Huai Su's calligraphy teacher, the renowned Yan Zhenqing (顏真卿, 709-785 AD) (6).  Note this particular preamble, interestingly, also included a brief description on the origin and the conveyance of the traditional cursive script in the eyes of Yan Zhenqing.  For more elaborate details on this preamble, please see Part IV: Preliminary Study - b) Huai Su's calligraphy and conveyance of traditions below.

3. Selected praises of Huai Su from notaries during Huai Su's era, including those written by Dai Shulun (戴叔倫, 732-789 AD), Wang Yong (王邕, ?-? AD) and Xu Yao (許瑤, ?-? AD) .  These praises mainly commented on the physical forms (形似), artistic styles and structures (機格), as well as the pace (疾速) of Huai Su' calligraphy. Highlights include:
  • 馳毫驟墨列奔駟, 滿座失聲看不及。-- "Huai Su’s ink-soaked brush ran with the speed of a galloping stallion, leaving his audience speechless and unable to trace its path",
  • 心手相師勢轉奇,詭形怪狀翻合宜。-- "His mind commands his hand and his hand guides his mind as he moves his brush to create strange forms and structures; although his script forms are odd and bizarre, collectively they are aesthetically harmonious and appropriate",
  • 奔蛇走虺勢入座,驟雨旋風聲滿堂。-- "(Huai Sui’s scripts) are like swift moving dragons and serpents travelling around with their aura filling up the empty spaces; his scripts are as compelling as if one is hearing the loud roars that can fill up an entire hall created from abrupt raindrops and violent swirling winds".

4. A concluding paragraph wherein he humbling asserted that he was not qualified for such praises above, with the date and Huai Su's signature at the very end.

c) Versions of Huai Su's Autobiography
The original Autobiography can no longer be found, but there were three different presumable copies of the original Autobiography according to literature written in the Southern Song Dynasty (南宋紹興二年, 1132 AD): the Shu version (藏在蜀中石陽休家), the Fung version (藏在馮當世) and the Su version (藏在蘇子美家) (7).  The Su version can be currently viewed at the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan, and was recently determined to be a modelling copy (映寫) of the original made in the Northern Song Dynasty (北宋, 960–1126 AD) (8)(9)(10); note also that this particular version displayed at the National Palace Museum is certainly not the complete original modelling replica of Huai Su's initial Autobiography as, at the minimum, the first six rows from the right of this particular version has been confirmed to be "repairs" (六行後補) written by an another calligrapher at a later date.

My model of the work presented above is the Shu version (蜀本) of the Autobiography.  In my humble opinion, compared to the Su version, the Shu version is more aesthetically pleasing and, perhaps, more consistent with Huai Su's unique artistic approach to the cursive script, and also more loyal to the form practised by one of Huai Su's teacher, Yan Zhenqing (Please see here for more analysis on this topic).  Therefore, from a purely artistic point of view, I personally believe that the Shu version is of a higher caliber than the Su version in terms of calligraphic achievement.
Part III: Text translation - by KS Vincent Poon

Note: The texts inside the square brackets [] in the English translation are explanatory word(s) or phrase(s) to help readers understand the text preceding them while texts inside the circular brackets () are additions to the translated text to fit English grammatical rules so as to guide English readers to interpret the original classical Chinese sentences properly.
Huai Su's [my] home was in Changsha. Ever since (I) was very young, (I) have been studying and serving Buddhism.
Between meditations and studying the scriptures, (I) liked to practice the art of calligraphy at (my) leisure time.
懷素家長沙。幼而事佛。
經禪之暇, 頗好筆翰。
然恨未能遠覩前人之奇迹,
Unfortunately, (I) did not have the chance to glance at the many different masterpieces made by the past great masters firsthand,
所見甚淺。
and so (my) scope [of the art of calligraphy] was very limited.
遂擔笈杖錫, 西遊上國。
Hence, at one time, (I) decided to take (my) bookcase and (my) staff [Khakkhara, the "sounding staff" held by a Buddhist monk] to visit the capital of the country [which is Chang'an. Note: "西遊上國" means traveling west to the capital Chang’an which is currently Xi’an].
謁見當代名公。
So (I) could visit and learn from many renowned scholars and statesmen there.
錯綜其事, 遺編絕簡。
(I) experienced and saw many things, including rare texts and invaluable books.
往往遇之。
(I) frequently encountered them.
豁然心胸, 略無疑滯。
And this made (me) open up (my) heart and mind, feeling liberated without any burden.
魚箋絹素,多所塵點,
Many pieces of exquisite yu-zi papers and plain silk clothes were marred by my ink blots,
士大夫不以為怪焉。
but the statesmen never found (my behavior) bizarre.
顏刑部書家者流,精極筆法,水鏡之辨,
Minister of Law, Yan [Yan Zhenqing], who was a master of calligraphy with exceptional penmanship skills and sound judgement,
許在末行。
wrote many compliments at the end of some of (my) works.
又以尚書司勳郎盧象、小宗伯張正言
In addition, since Under Secretary Lu Xiang of the Ministry of Personnel [under the Department of State Affairs] along with Zhang Zhengyan of the Ministry of Rites
曾為歌詩,故敘之曰:
compose many songs and poems about (my) work, so (Yan Zhenqing) chronicled in it [The Collection of Poems Regarding Huai Su 懷素上人草書歌]:
「開士懷素,僧中之英,
“The Enlightened [or KaiShi, a specialized term for a Buddhist follower] Huai Sui, a distinguished man among all monks,
氣概通疎(疏),性靈豁暢。
had a cheery carefree temperament and an open receptive mind.
精心草聖,積有歲時,
(He) devoted many years and efforts to following and studying the cursive scripts of the masters.
江嶺之間,其名大著。
From the Yangtze River to the Five Ridges, his name was well-known.  
故吏部侍郎韋公陟,覩其筆力,勗以有成。
Former and late Vice Director of the Ministry of Personnel, the honorable Wei Zhi, after personally observing his [Huai Su’s] penmanship skills, encouraged him in his pursuit and proclaimed that he [Huai Su] had already became an accomplished calligrapher.
今禮部侍郎張公謂,賞其不羈,引以遊處。
Current Vice Director of the Ministry of Rites, the honorable Zhang Wei, also appreciated his [Huai Su’s] free and uninhibited spirit as he invited him [Huai Su] to become his acquaintance and visited many places with him.
兼好事者同作歌以贊之,動盈卷軸。
There were also other enthusiasts who composed many poems and songs about his [Huai Su’s] works -- so many that they filled up scrolls of paper.
夫草稿之作,起於漢代,
Alas, the cursive script originated from the Han Dynasty [206BC-220AD];
杜度崔瑗,始以妙聞。
(back then), Du Du and Cui Yuan began the writing of the wonderful and ingenious cursive script with much recognition.
迨乎伯英,尤擅其美。
Later, Boying [Zhang Zhi] expressed the script with exceptional beauty.
茲降,相承,口訣手授。
Afterwards, there were (Wang) Xizhi and (Wang) Xianzhi (of the Jin Dynasty who followed the footsteps of Zhang Zhi). Subsequently, Yu [Yu Shinan] as well as Lu [Lu Jianzhi] inherited and passed along the art of the cursive script via mnemonic cues and direct hand instructions.  
以至於吳郡張旭長史,
The art eventually reached Chief Secretary [or Chief Clerk] Zhang Xu of the Wu Prefecture [Wu Prefecture of Tang Dynasty, currently located within Jiangxu and Zhejiang provinces].
雖姿性顛逸,超絕古今,而模楷精詳,特為真正。
Although (Zhang Xu) held an unorthodox temperament and (his) artistic styles were unrestraint and unprecedented, (he) was able to produce works that still followed the traditions of the cursive script with great fidelity.
真卿早歲常接遊居,屢蒙激昂,教以筆法。
Earlier in my life, Zhenqing [I] frequently visited and traveled with (Zhang Xu), and (he) inspired and taught me many calligraphic techniques.
資質劣弱,又嬰物務,不能懇習,迄以無成。
As (I) was not very talented and was always preoccupied with worldly matters, (I) could not study and practice the art earnestly; (I) was not at all an accomplished calligrapher.
追思一言,何可復得。
Oh, how (I) wish (I) could recall a single sentence that (my teacher, Zhang Xu,) had told me in the past.
忽見師作,縱橫不群,迅疾駭 人,若還舊觀。
(But), all of a sudden, I was introduced to Master* (Huai Su’s) works:  (they were) extraordinary and (their) script styles were shockingly energetic, swift and compelling as if I were observing (teacher Zhang Xu’s own works) in the past.
向使師得親承善誘,函挹規模,
If only Master* (Huai Su) had been directly mentored by (teacher Zhang Xu) to assimilate his [teacher Zhang Xu’s] artistic style of structure and setup;
則入室之賓,捨子奚適?
who else other than him [Huai Su] would be more suitable to becoming (Zhang Xu’s) close companion?
嗟歎不足,聊書此以冠諸篇首。」
This [the fact that Huai Su did not have the opportunity to exchange ideas with Zhang Xu] was so regrettable that my sincere exclamation here is insufficient to express my genuine feeling of disappointment; so the only thing I can do now is to write this as the preamble of this collection ["A collection of poems devoted to Master Huai Su's cursive script" (懷素上人草書歌)].”
其後繼作不絕,溢乎箱篋。
Afterwards, countless commentaries by others were written (to describe my cursive styles); so plentiful that they can fill up many book chests.
其述形似,則有張禮部云:
There were some of them that described the physical forms (of my cursive scripts);  one such was written by Zhang [Zhang Wei], of the Ministry of Rites, who wrote,
「奔蛇走虺勢入座,驟雨旋風聲滿堂。」
“(Huai Sui’s scripts) are like swift moving dragons and serpents travelling around with their aura filling up the empty spaces; (his scripts) are as compelling as if one is hearing the loud roars that can fill up an entire hall created from abrupt raindrops and violent swirling winds.”
盧員外云:「初疑輕煙澹古松,又似山開萬仞峰。」
Under Secretary Lu wrote, “At first glance, (Huai Su’s cursive scripts) seem akin to be puffs of light smoke hanging onto old pine trees; (but as you examine them further), they are also like sharp hills wedging between great mountains.”
王永州邕曰: 「寒猿飲水撼枯藤,壯士拔山伸勁鐵。」
Wang Yong, Prefect of Yongzhou, wrote, “(Viewing Huai Su’s calligraphy can be described) as if one is observing a mighty ape, during a cold winter day, hanging onto and rattling a withered vine while casually drinking water from a stream nearby; or as if one is observing a mighty warrior lifting up a mountain or straightening a piece of crooked strong iron with his bare hands.”
朱處士遙云:「筆下唯看激電流,字成只畏盤龍走。」
Reclusive scholar Zhu [Zhu Yao] wrote, “(Huai Su) writes as if the lightings strikes; (his) scripts are astounding as bustling mighty dragons.”
敘機格,則有李御史舟云:
Some commented on (my) artistic styles and structures of (my) script; Superintendent [Imperial Censor] Li Zhou wrote,
「昔張旭之作也,時人謂之張顛。今懷素 之為也,余實謂之狂僧。以狂繼顛,誰曰不可?」
“Back then, Zhang Xu was known as ‘Zhang the Madman’ [because of his bizarre and unconventional styles]; now, considering what Huai Su has done [which is equally unique], I shall sincerely name him [Huai Su] as the ‘Maniacal Monk’. A Manic succeeding a Madman, who can argue it’s not appropriate?”
張公又云:「稽山賀老粗知名,吳郡張顛曾不易*。」
The honorable Mr. Zhang [Zhang Wei] also wrote, “Even the respected elder He [He Zhizhang] of the Mount Kuaiji had heard of his [Huai Su’s] name, and certainly Wu Prefecture’s Zhang the Madman [Zhang Xu] cannot replace (Huai Su’s styles).”
許御史瑤云:「志在新奇無定則,古瘦灕驪半無墨。醉來信手 兩三行,醒後卻書書不得。」
Superintendent [Imperial Censor] Xu Yao wrote, “(Huai Su’s) artistic aspirations are uniquely novel and (he) creates without a definite structure; (his calligraphy) is as classically elegant and bold as an unrestrained stallion, decorated with brush strokes that were made with inkbrushes that were only half-soaked with ink.   (He) wrote (his scripts) offhandedly when (he was) drunk, but could not reproduce the beauty of them when (he) later sobered up.”
戴御史叔倫云:「心手相師勢轉奇,詭形恠狀翻合宜。人人欲問此中妙,懷素自言初不知。」
Superintendent [Imperial Censor] Dai Shulun wrote, “(His) mind commands (his) hand and (his) hand guides (his) mind as (he) moves his brush to create strange forms and structures; although (his script) forms are odd and bizarre, collectively (they are) aesthetically harmonious and appropriate.   Everyone wanted to ask (Huai Su) about the secrets behind this mystery, yet even Huai Su himself admitted (he) did not know how (he) started to write like this in the first place.”
語疾速,則有竇御史冀云:「粉壁長廊數 十間,興來小豁胸中氣。忽然絕叫三五聲,滿壁縱橫千萬字。」
Some remarked on my fast pace when I am writing my calligraphy. One such was written by Superintendent [Imperial Censor] Dou Ji: “A plain white wall stood in a corridor that spanned about several tens of rooms in length.  On the spur of the moment, (Huai Su) unleashed his passion and let out a few whimsical shouts, and (in an instant) the wall was full of his script characters in all directions.”
戴公又云:「馳豪驟墨劇奔駟,滿座失聲看不及。」
Superintendent [Imperial Censor] Dai [Dai Shulun] also wrote, “(Huai Su’s) ink-soaked brush ran with the speed of a galloping stallion, leaving his audience speechless and unable to trace its path.”
目愚劣,則有從父司勳員外郎吳興錢起詩云:
Seeing my shortcomings, my uncle Qian Qi from Wuxing [now Hú zhōu of Zhejiang province], who is a junior official of the Ministry of Personnel, wrote this poem:
「遠鶴無前侶,孤雲寄太虛。狂來輕世界,醉裏得真如。」
“(Huai Su) is like a lonely crane flying far away without a guiding partner, (or he) is like an isolated cloud residing in a secluded empty space.  When (he) unleashes his madness, (he) looks down upon worldly limits; and when he is drunk, he realizes the Tathātā [a Buddhist term describing the ultimate rule of Nature.  真: real, ultimate; 如: constant, unchanging.  In this context, it may refer to Huai Su’s calligraphy reflected Huai Su’s mind have already transcended to a level that is not constraint by this unreal and ever-changing physical world].”
皆辭旨激切,理識玄奧,
These were all encouraging words and they all carry deep and profound meanings,
固非虛蕩之所敢當,徒增愧畏耳。
and so these compliments should not have been given to a shallow person (such as myself) ; they only serve to further my shame and increase my stress.
大曆丁巳冬十月廿有八日。懷素
This was the time of Winter, October 28th, the Dingsi year of the Dali [AD777; “Dingsi year of the Dali” refers to the twelve regnal year of Emperor Daizong’s reign in Tang Dynasty]. Huai Su.
(translated by KS Vincent Poon, Jan . 2016, revised Dec. 2016)

Part IV: Preliminary Study - by KS Vincent Poon

a) Huai Su's calligraphy and its cultural impact
Huai Su's styles were considered revolutionary during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) as he somehow managed to put together seemingly chaotic characters and brush strokes into calligraphic works that were visually pleasing.  This went against traditonal Tang Dynasty calligraphy, since renowned Tang calligraphers such as Wang Xizhi (王羲之, 303-361 AD) wrote characters that were more orderly with each character of more or less the same size (11).  What Huai Su introduced was the concept of "chaos within order" that was applied successfully to calligraphy, and his styles had a big impact on subsequent Song Dynasty calligraphers. Indeed, renowned Song Dynasty calligraphers such as Huang Tingjian (黃庭堅, 1045–1105 AD) displayed a similar style of "chaos within order" in his calligraphic works, especially in one of his represented cursive script work Du Fu ji Helan Xian shi (杜甫寄賀蘭銛詩):


Du Fu ji Helan Xian shi (杜甫寄賀蘭銛詩 by Huang Tingjian (黃庭堅)

Intriguingly, a recently discovered personal letter, hand-written by the renowned Japanese samurai Sakamoto Ryōma (坂本龍馬, 1836-1867AD) five days before his assasination, also carried a similar "chaos within order" motif:

坂本龍馬直筆と確認された手紙 (portion). Source: http://www.chunichi.co.jp/

Hence, Huai Su's calligraphic styles certainly had a wide and significant impact on Asian calligraphy in general.  

In my humble opinion, there are at least two main criteria that an excellent calligraphic artwork must satisfy.  First, there should be a significant amount of orderly yet dynamic variations among and within each character.  Second, the overall aesthetics should be extremely pleasing when all these dynamic characters come together in one single piece of artwork.  Without a doubt, Huai Su's Autobiography had accomplished these two criteria with a high degree of success and is therefore considered today a masterpiece in Chinese calligraphy.

Note this "chaos within order" motif introduced by Huai Su can also be observed in Nature wherein everything in it appears to be orderly and follows a certain pattern but within it lies enormous diversity and variability.  Huai Su's works are so aesthetically pleasing probably because his works mimic this "chaos within order" pattern observed in Nature.  It is certainly a prime example of my first criteria of having "a significant amount of orderly yet dynamic variations among and within each character".  In addition, like observing the beauty of Nature, one will gain a sense of peaceful elegance and will not grow tired of staring at Huai Su's works for long periods of time -- such is the essence of a masterpiece.  This is in sharp contrast to some modern Chinese calligraphic works where they may give the audience visual shocks for a few seconds but quickly become unappealing afterwards.  As my father, calligrapher Poon Kwok Kin, always cautioned: "if one does not want one's new work to be displayed in the living room to be seen everyday for a long time, it is not a good work. Toss it away and redo it."

When one is trying to think outside the box and be creative, one can easily fall into focusing too much on being "creative" and forget about the "basics".  While Huai Su introduced and excelled in the then-revolutionary style of "chaos within order", he never forgot about the "order" part, which was the basic rules and foundations of traditional Chinese calligraphy. The brush strokes of each character as well as the order of each stroke were strictly followed and no new "character" was invented in his calligraphy.  Even Zhang Xu, the "Sage of Cursive Script (草聖)" who was also renowned for his chaotic and "mad" styles, followed traditional rules in great fidelity (雖姿性顛逸,超絕古今,而模楷精詳,特為真正).  Indeed, in order to produce revolutionary works and to establish one's own unique style, one must first develop a strong foundation of the basics, an important prerequisite that many fail to recognize in today's world.
b) Huai Su's calligraphy and importance of learning traditions
As mentioned at the end of the previous section, Part IV: Preliminary Study - Huai Su's calligraphy and its cultural impact,  Huai Su certainly displayed an excellent command of traditional Chinese calligraphy before he became a revolutionary master of the art.  So from whom did Huai Su learn the traditions of the cursive script?  Huai Su had many calligraphy teachers (12), and one of them was the renowned calligrapher Yan Zhenqing (顏真卿, 709-785 AD) who composed the preamble of "A collection of poems devoted to Master Huai Su's cursive script" (懷素上人草書歌).  Interestingly, Huai Su incorporated the contents of this particular preamble, which included a brief description on the origin and the conveyance of the traditional cursive script in the eyes of Yan Zhenqing, as Huai Su wrote his own Autobiography.  The preamble specifically described the cursive script stemmed from the renowned Han Dynasty calligraphers Du Du (杜度, ?-? AD) and Cui Yuan(崔瑗, 77-142 AD), who were succeeded by Zhang Zhi (張芝, ?-192 AD), followed by Wang Xizhi (王羲之, 303-361 AD) and Wang Xianzhi (王獻之, 344-386 AD) of the Jin Dynasty, subsequently passed on to Yu Shinan (虞世南, 558-638 AD) as well as Lu Jianzhi (陸柬之, 585-638 AD), and finally reached Zhang Xu (張旭, 675-750 AD) who was one of Yan Zhenqing's teachers.  Adding their personal relationships together, one can conclude the conveyance of the cursive script from Du Du to Huai Su as follows:

Fig. 1. Conveyance of the traditional Chinese cursive script as implicated in the Autobiography

It is therefore evident that establishing a solid understanding of traditions and reviewing the past is important in calligraphy and, possibly, in other arts or fields in academia.  Without sound knowledge of background and history, one cannot produce breakthroughs and revolutionary works that can stand the test of time; such is the key that one must recognize in order to be successful in any field.  

c) Attitudes held by traditional Chinese gentry and intellect as reflected in the Autobiography
The original Autobiography was written by Huai Su at an age where he was already an established and eminent calligrapher.  Yet, he was extremely humble in acknowledging his gifted young self as having a very limited scope of the art (所見甚淺) in the Autobiography .  Additionally, he documented his journey of learning from others, suggesting that he was a man who sought to improve his art persistently.  Although in the middle of the Autobiography he mentioned many notaries were praising his calligraphy, he concluded at the end that he did not deserve any of those praises (固非虛盪之所敢當, 徒增愧畏耳。--"These compliments should not have been given to a shallow person such as myself; they only serve to further my shame and increase my stress").  Indeed, Huai Su's humility and his thirst to improve himself endlessly are prerequisites to him becoming a great master of his art.  This type of attitude is also reflected in one of Huai Su's teachers, the great calligrapher Yan Zhenqing, who was documented in the Autobiography to have humbled himself by writing, "As I was not very talented and was always preoccupied with worldly matters, I could not study and practice the art earnestly; I was not at all an accomplished calligrapher (資質劣弱,又嬰物務,不能懇習,迄以無成。)".  The habit of introspecting on one's own shortcomings with humility is certainly a trait that is shared among most, if not all, traditional Chinese intellects.

Genuine humility naturally spawns respect for others and persistence: respect for others comes from acknowledging one's shortcomings and recognizing other people's strength, while persistent is derived from being motivated to improve oneself as one realizes one's imperfections.  For an intellect, the pursuit of knowledge and perfection is a never ending task: a newly completed work is merely a starting point for another as there is always room for improvement.  "Become a better person than my yesterday's self" is an excellent motto to live by as it motivates one to be persistent in searching for new knowledge from others and reflect on one's shortcoming.

d) Conclusion and relevance to today's society
Huai Su's outstanding calligraphic accomplishments were largely due to his humility, persistence, openness to learn from others and willingness to study the past.  To a certain extent, learning and practicing calligraphy for Huai Su is more of a journey to enlightenment and perfection, a concept that is akin to an ancient Chinese term to describe the art of calligraphy: Shodo (書道).  Shodo refers to taking "the art of calligraphy as a means to cultivate one's character; via the practice of calligraphy, one is able to express and reflect on one's emotions, to elevate one's moral character, and to think and understand the meaning of life"(13).  Indeed, Huai Su's was admired by many in the Tang Dynasty and his mind and possibly his calligraphy were eventually remarked to have "transcended to a level that is not constraint by this unreal and ever-changing physical world (遠鶴無前侶,孤雲寄太虛。狂來輕世界,醉裏得真如)"(14).

It is not surprising that the qualities of humility, persistent and the willingness to learn from the past are critical for success in any field.  As such, a progressive society should focus on educating its next generation to develop these excellent qualities in mind.  Indeed, if a significant fraction of a society is arrogant, egotistic, self-centred, and lacks a genuine understanding of its own history, such society cannot progress, as asserted by the great contemporary Chinese historian and philosopher Chien Mu (錢穆) in his represented work Outline of our national history (國史大綱) (15).

Sadly, the modern North American approach to education runs in contrast to developing humility, respect for others, and the direct passage of knowledge within the education system; teacher-directed instruction with emphasis on transmitting known facts is currently often being criticized as outdated and blamed for low student engagment, while student-directed instruction with emphasis on self-directed learning that "generates" their own personal knowledge is being hailed as revolutionary and a means for higher student success.  It is argued that students learn and engage better by "learning at their own pace" and by "self-discovery" as they can "create their own knowledge" as well as "maintaining their own self esteem" with teachers only serving as "facilitators".  Unfortunately, this dogma may work in theory and probably in an one-on-one resource-rich setting, but in practice it is misguided as a recent study by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) published in 2016 revealed that teacher-directed instruction is more effective than self-directed learning:

"According to students’ reports, and on average across OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, teachers in advantaged schools explain or demonstrate a scientific idea (teacher-directed instruction) more frequently than do teachers in disadvantaged schools. Students who reported that their science teachers frequently use these practices and adapt their teaching to meet students’ needs score higher in science, show stronger beliefs about the value of scientific enquiry, and are more likely to expect to pursue a science-related career than students who reported that their teachers use these practices less frequently"

It is therefore evident, with proper student accommodations, teacher-directed instruction provides a better environment in learning the sciences.  This is further support by the fact that 15-year-old students in Asian countries (where teacher-instruction on the basics is more prevalent) in general scores much higher in performance in science, reading and mathematics than those in North American countries (16).

The great philosopher and educator Confucius (孔子, 551 BC – 479 BC) once warned us: "Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous (學而不思則罔,思而不學則殆)" (translated by James Legge) (17).  Thinking and being creative without learning the basics is dangerous, perilous and can even lead to one's demise.  The ramifications of not learning and not respecting the facts are beginning to appear in today's world as the terms "post-truth" and "fake news" are becoming more and more prevalent in the media.  It is rare to hear genuine and high quality debates among individuals as facts presented in debates are often either distorted or non-existent; this is truly disheartening as a society certainly cannot progress and may even generate herself catastrophes that are caused by collective choices that are made based on fabricated "facts".  It is certainly fine to be thinking outside the box and be creative, but one must first have a good command of the true and basic facts before one can make valid arguments.  Any new proposal, "discovery", dogma or thought that is found on fabricated facts is surely unproductive and potentially dangerous; and it is truly ironic and sad that we still need to recognize and heed the warning that was presented by Confucius thousands of years ago, indicating that we humans appear not to have the habit of learning from the wise.

To reverse this rather horrifying trend of "post truth" and "fake news", it is critical for teachers, parents and other education workers to focus on teaching young students to learn the basics, to respect and appreciate founded facts, and to learn from history, as oppose to focusing too much on "self-directed learning", "generating their own knowledge", and over-protecting student's own self-esteem that can often lead to arrogance and recklessness, which in turn can damage the entire future society as a whole.


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