From Round to Square (and back)

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Breaking the Vessel (4)—Breaking the Vessel

Click here to go to section one of "Breaking the Vessel."
Click below for the other "Breaking the Vessel" posts.
1         2         3         4         5         6         7         8         9         10          11          12

Breaking the Vessel
In the early spring of 1026, a precocious seven-year old named Sima Guang sat reading classical historical documents in his father’s well-appointed study.  Surrounded by walls of woodblock texts and elegant scrolls, he studied both the details and the “big picture” of China’s past, and admired the literary style, organization, and lessons of the great histories.  He was the very picture of the diligent young scholar in a culture that admired lifelong learners. His was a study pattern of reading and memorization, and even at the age of seven Sima could recite a wide array of classical poems, as well as snatches of classical literature that took other children many more years to master. Even before the age of ten sui (children were considered to be “one” at birth), Sima Guang had surpassed his older siblings in all academic respects, and was on-pace to be one of the youngest scholar-officials in recent memory. For two generations, the Song dynasty had known the kind of stability that allowed a young man to concentrate on his studies without worry of his family’s world coming unhinged—a surprisingly real concern for young scholars fifty years before his time and fifty years after. In historical retrospect, Sima Guang grew up in one of the few calm bubbles of security that China would see in four hundred years.

[b] Head fastened to beam
[a] Reading by light of fireflies
Easy though it would have been to shirk his academic responsibilities—or at least to proceed at a more methodical pace—his family’s affluence did not deter him from his purpose. And so it was that he spent a sunny, mild spring day inside, reading and reciting. Little Sima surely had been told the famous stories of hardworking children—much less wealthy than he—who used ingenuity and perseverance to attain knowledge. These stories have been recounted in China every generation for many centuries, and would eventually be compiled in several written versions, including in a children's primer called the Three Character Classic. First there is the sleepy young man who was so devoted to his studies, even after toiling all day in farm labor, that he continually pricked his thigh with an awl in order to stay awake and focus on his reading. Another tells of a poor farm child who practiced writing Chinese characters with a stick in the dirt, even as he worked the fields for his struggling family.  Still another fastened his head to a low-hanging beam so as not to nod off from the fatigue of working by day and studying by night. And everyone had heard the tale of the lads who were not content to stop reading after sunset. One child captured fireflies in a bag so he could shine their collective light on his text, while the other used the sun’s fading reflection off the fallen snow to study, even in dim twilight. Young Sima Guang was hardly alone in being a studious child.
One child opened rushes and plaited them together
Another scraped tablets of bamboo
These children had no books
But they knew how to make an effort

One tied his head to the beam above him
Another pricked his thigh with an awl
They had no teachers
But toiled diligently on their own

Then we have boy who put fireflies in a bag
And another who used the white glare from snow
Although their families were poor
These individuals studied unceasingly[1]

[c] Chinese-style garden
Little Sima had more in common with legendary young scholars than he did with his peers.  On that spring afternoon, Sima Guang read his texts in the study, even as shouts and cries of children at play came from the large courtyard surrounding the family compound. Imagine the sprawling household of a wealthy extended family in China’s eleventh-century Song dynasty, with gardens, ponds, contoured hillsides, and elaborately manicured trees, as well as the children of multiple brothers, their wives, and even the employees who kept the complex operation running.  Blended with the natural beauty were works of art and architecture—both large and small buildings spread out around the grounds and large decorative vessels painted with elaborate designs of auspicious symbols from Chinese civilization.  While Little Sima Guang read from his texts in the quiet of the family library, the children played a game much like “hide and seek” on the rolling terrain of the family’s grounds. 

Suddenly, cries of confusion came from the courtyard.  Sima Guang looked up, and his biography in the Song Dynasty History tells what happened next.

A group of children was playing in the courtyard when one child climbed onto a large, decorative urn.  His feet slipped and he fell into deep rainwater in the vessel.  The other children fled in fear and confusion, but Sima Guang grasped a stone and broke the vessel, saving the child’s life.[2]

[d] Medium-sized decorative vessel (author's photo)
The passage shows that it was precisely the little reader—the gifted student of the classical histories—who was able to move directly from learning to living, from clear knowledge of his books to conduct in the world that had human value.  Western readers often do not see the connection readily. So ingrained are stereotypes of the sheltered scholar lacking social skills (and even compassion) that they often assume that anyone but a bookworm could help in such a situation. How could someone with almost no “real world” experience have any idea what to do outdoors amidst little veterans of hill and dale, garden and grove, patios and patois? The children who eschewed books in the late afternoon would know the territory from many weeks of serious play, and would act like the territorial overlords who dominated Chinese society until their grandparents were born. I can almost hear the thoughts of Western (and Chinese) skeptics—“go back to your books, junior, and let the little professionals handle it; you don’t have a clue.”

[e] Breaking the vessel
The admittedly fanciful passage in Sima’s biography strikes a very different tone. Far from presenting an image of a young scholar retiring from the world to study, it shows that only little Sima was able to take action and save the life of the drowning child.  The other, presumably less serious, children were unable to cope with the enormity of the problem and fled, even though they certainly had far more experience in the world (and with playing “hide and seek” in courtyard vessels filled with rainwater) than their seven-year old friend with a knack for expounding upon dusty classical texts.  But in this account, only little Sima was able to bridge the fundamental gap between learning about the world and living in it.

It is instructive to read this little tale much as we might a compelling myth that anthropologists find to make more sense than truth—in short, little stories that may only resemble a kind of truth while still saying much more about a society’s priorities and the juxtaposition of its values. In little Sima’s “myth,” learning leads to excellent decision-making in times of crisis, and the more time spent reading the better (“experiential learning,” as we call it today, is overrated). Fanciful though we might find bits of Sima’s childhood tale, it is historically accurate to say that Sima Guang believed this to be true (the best decisions emerge from study) to the end of his life. The theme of moving from books to conduct—text to action, to use the apt phrase of a prominent philosopher[3]—would become a powerful theme in Sima’s historical writing and managerial thought. They would, in time, form the core of the Comprehensive Mirror.

And so, at a tender age, the little boy passed the first of many tests, and this one was etched in (hurled) stone.

Tomorrow (3/26)—Up the Down Staircase
Life is complicated, and it doesn’t take watching the Cohen brothers’ True Grit to understand that there rarely are “direct trajectories” in life. Sima’s life had great successes and occasional detours, one of which led to the completion of the Comprehensive Mirror.

[1] Chen Xiujun [ed]. Sanzijing [三字經, Three Character Classic] (Taibei: Yuwentang shuju, 2001), 99-100.
[2] Songshi [336], 10,757
[3] Paul Ricoeur, From Text to Action (Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press, 2007).


[a] Reading by light of fireflies.  Children's stories abound with these themes.
[d] Changsha, Hunan (China). Photograph taken by author.
[e] Breaking the vessel.   The story is retold in many media in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and abroad today. Children's books give it a prominent place


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