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‘On Teachers’ by Han Yu


In ancient times those who wanted to learn would seek out a teacher, one who could propagate the doctrine, impart professional knowledge, and resolve doubts. Since no one is born omniscient, who can claim to have no doubts? If one has doubts and is not willing to learn from a teacher, his doubts will never be resolved. Anyone who was born before me and learned the doctrine before me is my teacher. Anyone who was born after me and learned the doctrine before me is also my teacher. Since what I desire to learn is the doctrine, why should I care whether he was born before or after me? Therefore, it does not matter whether a person is high or low in position, young or old in age. Where there is the doctrine, there is my teacher.



Alas! The tradition of learning from the teacher has long been neglected. Thus it is difficult to find a person without any doubts at all. Ancient sages, who far surpassed us, even learned from their teachers. People today, who are far inferior to them, regard learning from the teacher as a disgrace. Thus, wise men become more wise and unlearned men become more foolish. This explains what makes a wise man and what makes a foolish man.


It is absurd that a person would choose a teacher for his son out of his love for him, and yet refuse to learn from the teacher himself, thinking it a disgrace to do so. The teacher of his son teaches the child only reading and punctuation, which is not propagating the doctrine or resolving doubts as the aforementioned. I don't think it wise to learn from the teacher when one doesn't know how to punctuate, but not when one has doubts unresolved, for that I find to be the folly of learning in small matters, but neglecting the big ones. Even medicine men, musicians and handicraftsmen do not think it disgraceful to learn from each other. When one of the literati and officialdom calls another man his "teacher" and himself his "student" people will get together and invariably laugh at him. If you ask them why they are laughing, they will say that since he is almost of the same age and as erudite as another man, it would be degrading for him to call the other man "teacher" if the other man's social rank is lower than his; and it would be flattering if the other man's social rank is higher. Alas! It is clear that the tradition of learning from the teacher can no longer be restored. Medicine men, musicians and handicraftsmen are despised by the gentlemen. How strange it is that gentlemen are less wise than these people!

爱其子,择师而教之;于其身也,则耻师焉,惑矣。彼童子之师,授之书而习其句读者,非吾所谓传其道、解其惑者也。句读之不知,惑之不解,或师焉,或不焉,小学而大遗,吾未见其明也。巫医、乐师、百工之人,不耻相师。士大夫之族,曰"师"曰"弟子"云者,则群聚而笑之。问之,则曰:彼与彼年相若也,道相似也, 位卑则足羞,官盛则近谀。呜呼!师道之不复,可知矣。 巫医、乐师、百工之人,君子不齿,今其智乃反不能及,其可怪也欤!


The ancient sages did not limit themselves to particular teachers. Confucius had learned from people like Tanzi, Changhong, Shixiang, and Laodan, who were not as virtuous and talented as Confucius. Confucius said: "If three men are walking together, one of them is bound to be good enough to be my teacher." A student is not necessarily inferior to his teacher, nor does a teacher necessarily be more virtuous and talented than his student. The real fact is that one might have learned the doctrine earlier than the other, or might be a master in his own special field.



Pan, the son of Li's family, who is only seventeen years old, loves to study Chinese classics of the Qin and Han dynasties, and masters the six classics and their annotations. He does not follow conventions and is willing to learn from me. I appreciate his ability to act in accordance with the old tradition of learning. Therefore I dedicate this piece to him.



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