An Educated Man is Not a Pot 君子不器
An interview with Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys)
This interview was originally published under the title 'Languages without the nuances, Luke Slattery interviews Pierre Ryckmans', in the Higher Education Supplement of The Australian on 8 July 2009. It is an interesting comment by a leading writer and Sinologist discussions on issues related to the teaching of Chinese and Asian languages in Australian schools.
Following the publication of a policy paper entitled 'Australian Strategy for Asian Language Proficiency' on 10 June 2009 a debate erupted in the pages of The Australian in regard to Asian language and culture education. In the previous issue of China Heritage Quarterly we carried an article related to that debate. See 'Australia's Asia: An Illiterate Future?' in our September 2009 issue. Pierre Ryckmans, internationally known by his penname Simon Leys, takes the discussion in a somewhat different direction.
The quotation that Pierre uses in this interview, and which we have used as the title of the reprinted article, 'an educated man is not a pot' (junzi bu qi 君子不器), comes from The Analects. Luke Slattery is the editor of the Higher Education Supplement of The Australian.—The Editor
Pierre Ryckmans, one of Australia's most distinguished public intellectuals, has drunk deeply at the springs of East and West. The Belgian-born Sinologist, author of a suite of groundbreaking essays written in protest against Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, is fluent in French, English and Mandarin. Ryckmans, who writes under the pen name Simon Leys, was formerly professor of Chinese at The Australian National University and the University of Sydney. He taught Mandarin to Kevin Rudd at the ANU.
In semi-retirement from academic life he has written, among other things, an exquisite novel, The Death of Napoleon, in his native tongue and a new translation of The Analects of Confucius. Book reviews and essays on subjects as diverse as novelist Andre Gide and the shipwreck of the Batavia flow from his pen, as he eschews the computer. A study of Stendhal, that most vivid and attractive nineteenth-century French novelist, is under way.
Ryckmans's nom de plume was inspired (tongue in cheek) by Victor Segalen's hypnotic novel Rene Leys, whose hero is a Belgian-born adventurer led into the inner life of the Imperial Palace in Beijing. Though an internationally decorated writer and former Boyer lecturer, Ryckmans's appearances in the Australian print media are rare. He agreed to answer questions on language policy out of a passion for languages and for education.—Luke Slattery
Luke Slattery: Can you describe your experience of learning and teaching Chinese?
Pierre Ryckmans: Most of my life has been devoted to these two activities. The personal details are not interesting in themselves but they lead me to two observations. 'Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught,' Oscar Wilde's paradox, is profoundly true. However, those things that cannot be taught can (and must) be learned. They can be learned in as much as one passionately wishes to know them, and provided that this passionate desire is sustained long enough. The question for a good teacher is not whether he loves his students but how much he loves his subject. This love is infectious and in turn makes the student realise the subject is intensely and urgently worth exploring.
L.S.: Does the study of an ideographic and tonal language afford specific joys and frustrations?
P.R.: In my case the first and main incentive to study Chinese was from the start Chinese writing. Appreciation and enjoyment of Chinese calligraphy remains for me one of the many rewards of this study (another one being direct access to Chinese classical poetry; in my limited knowledge, the purest, most complete form of poetry I have ever encountered).
The tonal nature (four tones) of modern spoken Chinese can be disconcerting at first for beginners, but Chinese grammar is utterly straightforward and simple, incomparably easier than the grammar of any Indo-European language.
L.S.: According to some, Chinese should be taught here en masse. Half of all Australians should be fluent in an Asian language within thirty years. Please comment.
P.R.: The statement regarding the desirable language fluency of all Australians in the future is a marvellous dream. How could I not subscribe to it? For one thing, it would provide immediate employment to all our graduates! Yet in what measure would it really be feasible? Here we need first to clarify a few basic concepts. To learn can mean different things. Consider for instance, on the one hand, 'I learn to swim', 'I learn to drive'; and on the other, 'I learn French, Japanese, Chinese.' There is a difference of nature between these two types of activity. The first belongs to the realm of specialist technical training; the second is a humanist pursuit and pertains to the domain of education. In the area of training, all that is required from the instructor is that he be professionally competent. In the realm of education one expects from a teacher, in addition to mastering his discipline, that he be inspiring.
In the example of car driving, to succeed, the need to obtain a driver's licence will be sufficient motivation; there is no need to love cars and engines. (Note also that skills acquired from training usually last for a lifetime.) In the field of education, however, if you pursue any course in the humanities, just because you are chasing after a diploma, in the end you will probably obtain this useless piece of paper; nevertheless, you will have essentially wasted your time. If your endeavour was not driven by personal intellectual hunger, if it was not spiritually nourishing, nothing will remain of it, even after a very short time.
Mass instruction is a very efficient method of training. Look at military training, for instance (when it is compulsory). Raw conscripts, who are not even interested, can be taught very quickly how to walk in step and shoot straight. It is difficult to envision a conscription system that could compel half the Australian school population to attend fruitfully Asian, or any other, language classes. In the field of humanities mass education is an oxymoron. By definition, education is aimed at the individual.
In my experience of Chinese language teaching, after a year, sometimes after a few months, a natural process of self-elimination took place. Soon there remained only a small group of students, but these were strongly motivated, wide awake, responsive, full of challenging questions. To teach such students was sheer bliss. Conversely, I could not conceive of any form of hard labour more dreadful than having to teach Chinese to students who have no desire to learn it.
To sum up a very complex question: the idea of developing proficiency for Asian languages among the Australian population is immensely attractive. In practice, however, the issue presents so many nuances—What sort of teachers? What sort of students? What sort of teaching? With what sort of aims?—I'm afraid it will not yield itself to any central policy planning.
L.S.: Does Confucius have anything to offer on this subject?
P.R.: On education, two quotes from The Analects come immediately to mind. A disciple once asked Confucius to teach him gardening. Confucius replied: 'Better ask an old gardener'. The disciple left. Confucius commented: 'What a moron.' (The disciple had failed to grasp the difference between education and training.) Confucius said: 'An educated man is not a pot'. A pot, or a tool, has only limited capacity and a narrow, specialised use. The aim of education is to enable a person to become more fully human. Western humanism had the same aim. Remember Erasmus: 'One is not born a man, one becomes a man.'