The Three Character Classic(三字经): The Value Of Learning In Later Life

The Value Of Learning In Later Life2
"Scholar in a Meadow", Chinese painting from the Song Dynasty. In ancient China, the pursuit of learning in one's later life was considered an admirable virtue.
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By Jade Pearce

The Three Character Classic, or San Zi Jing (三字经), is the best known classic Chinese text for children. Written by Wang Yinglin (1223–1296) during the Song Dynasty, it has been memorised by generations of Chinese, both young and old.

However, after the Cultural Revolution in China, the Three Character Classic was banned and eventually fell into disuse. In this series, we revive and review this great Chinese classic, drawing ancient lessons of wisdom for our modern-day lives. 

The Value Of Learning In Later Life

In 2016, Nepalese grandfather Durga Kami made headlines and captured worldwide admiration for going back to school at the age of 69.

According to Reuters, Kami aspired to become a teacher, but poverty forced him to drop out of school. Several decades later, the passing of his wife spurred Kami to go back to school, as a means to cope with the loss and loneliness.

Kami first completed primary school, where he learned to read and write. He now attends the Shree Kala Bhairab higher secondary school, participating in classes and extracurricular activities with his 14- and 15-year-old classmates.

“If they see an old person with white beard like me studying in school they might get motivated as well,” he told Reuters. He added that he hopes to study until his death.

Kami’s story is remarkable for his humility and eagerness to learn. Age, and even the 1-hour trek to school, were no barriers for this silver-haired Nepalese man.

As we get older, the prospect of learning something new can grow increasingly intimidating.  “My brain’s not as sharp as it used to be, and my memory is worse than before. What’s the point?”

But the ancients rebuffed the notion of “too old to learn”. In fact, the pursuit of learning was admirable, because it reflected an awareness of one’s gaps in knowledge and understanding, as well as the desire and diligence to improve oneself.

One such person immortalised in the pages of the Three Character Classic is Su Xun or Su Laoquan, who had a late start to a subsequently admirable life.

Su Xun, the Late Starter

The Value Of Learning In Later Life
Su Xun, one of the Eight Prose Masters of the Tang and Song Dynasties. Su Xun only began taking his studies seriously when he was 27, but he overcame various setbacks to become a renowned writer.

Despite his age and various setbacks, Su Xun persevered in his pursuit of learning and knowledge.

Su Xun, who later became known as Su Laoquan, was a distinguished writer from the Song Dynasty. He and his two sons, Su Shi and Su Zhe, were among the Eight Legendary Prose Masters of the Tang and Song.

But if one had met Su Xun in his youth, one would have hardly expected him to have the makings of a great prose master. As a child, Su Xun hated studying and made no effort to learn, frittering away the first few decades of his life.

Then one day, his elder brother passed his imperial examinations and became an official. This was the wake-up call Su Xun needed, and he finally realised that he had to take charge of his life. But by this time, he was already 27 and well into adulthood.

Luckily, Su Xun was no defeatist. He set his mind to it and spent a year diligently studying the Six Confucian Classics. He then sat for the imperial examinations, but failed to rank in them.

Su Xun sighed to himself, “I must not have prepared well enough for the examinations. But getting an impressive rank in the imperial examinations – that should not be the real purpose of learning and studying.”

So Su Xun changed his learning strategy. He burned all the practice essays he had written over the past year, and refused to write another essay. Instead, he spent the next 5-6 years barricaded in his room learning and studying his books, broadening his knowledge base and exposure to various writing styles.

After 5-6 years of solid studying, Su Xun finally felt that he had enough knowledge to start writing again. This time, he found he could easily write thousand-word essays that were elegant, logical, and had beautiful prose. His essays became very popular with scholars during his time.

During the reign of Emperor Renzong of Song, Su Xun brought his sons with him to the capital city. There, the noted statesman and prose master Ouyang Xiu came across Su Xun’s essays, and was deeply impressed with his writing. He recommended Su Xun to Prime Minister Han Qi, who was equally taken by Su’s prose and accorded him much respect and support.

Thereafter, Su Xun’s reputation as a prose master spread far and wide. As one of the Eight Prose Masters of the Tang and Song, Su Xun’s writings were widely studied and modelled by others. He left an indelible impact on the realm of Chinese prose for many generations.

Despite his age and various setbacks, Su Xun persevered in his pursuit of learning and knowledge. He demonstrates that it’s never too late to learn, whether it’s picking up a new activity or enriching oneself in a new domain of knowledge. After all, one may discover hidden talents and achieve great things late in life.

Liang Hao, the Top Scholar at 82

If Su Xun’s story was admirable, the story of Liang Hao was all the more remarkable. Enduring nearly a lifetime of failures and setbacks, Liang Hao finally accomplished his goal of becoming a top scholar at the age of 82.

Liang Hao lived during the Northern Song Dynasty, and loved to study from a young age. As a young man, Liang had achieved the top position in the prefecture-level examinations, and his goal was to become a top scholar in the imperial examinations (the highest level of the civil service examinations).

But despite sitting for the imperial examinations year after year, Liang Hao consistently failed to rank in each attempt.

Liang Hao’s track record of failure became the butt of many jokes – every year, he was cruelly ridiculed and taunted by others to give up. But Liang Hao always responded to the jeering with a serene smile, and simply continued preparing for the next examination.

Many years later, Liang Hao’s own son became a top scholar in the imperial examinations. But Liang Hao himself seemed no closer to his goal; he still had not managed to pass the examinations, and could be seen doggedly plugging away at his books every day.

Laughing, his friends advised him, “Your son has already achieved the top position in the imperial exams; your family will be so rich you’ll never have to worry about money. So why do you keep trying to pass the examinations?”

Again, Liang Hao responded with nothing more than a serene smile, and continued to study with unabated diligence.

Despite all his years of learning and experience, Liang Hao had been tempered by years of failure, and remained humbly aware of the limits to his understanding.

After decades of unwavering hard work, Liang Hao finally achieved his life-long ambition at the age of 82. At the final round of the imperial examinations, Liang’s eloquent and wise answers deeply impressed the emperor and his ministers. He passed and was named top scholar.

A triumphant Liang Hao returned home to his sons and grandsons, impressing upon them the value of “learning into one’s old age”.  Not only did Liang Hao exemplify remarkable perseverance in the face of ridicule, his desire to keep learning in later life is all the more admirable.

Despite all his years of learning and experience, Liang Hao had been tempered by years of failure, and remained humbly aware of the limits to his understanding. His decades of hard work finally culminated in a brilliant demonstration of his wit and wisdom before the imperial court.

In more modern times, a large body of research shows that learning in adulthood improves cognitive function and may reduce mental health issues like dementia and depression.  The more mentally demanding the task is, the greater the improvement.

Moreover, the research shows that the older brain retains the ability to acquire new and demanding skills, such as learning a new language or musical instrument.

Rachel Wu, an assistant professor in cognitive neuroscience at the University of California Riverside, said in a Science Daily article that “we can learn many new skills at any age”.

“It just takes time and dedication. We seem to make it very difficult on ourselves and other adults to learn. Perhaps this is why some aspects of cognitive aging are self-imposed.”

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