My top 10 Chinese Quotes on Education

Bustling Beijing
10 min readJan 20, 2021

Knowledge is Power

Everyone who is interested in China and its history knows that for Chinese (for East Asians in general) education and traditional values are among the most important things in life.

Deeply ingrained in Asian societies the positive attitude to rigorous education is reflected in many Chinese sayings. Reading them made me think about how different -despite of all the obvious similarities- East and West are in many ways.

The changes in the last decades might have led to even greater differences at least in the field of education. And dare I say, maybe not for the better in the West. My thoughts are meant as a contribution to a discussion, not to trigger anyone. Feel free to comment and give your own opinions.

Early on in childhood Chinese parents put a great emphasis on their child´s upbringing.

Your child has a great score and knows how to play piano? Bravo! Knowledge and a specific skillset are a sign of a parent´s job well done. A child´s education reflects on the social standing of a family among their peers.

Stereotypes make life easy

In the West, Chinese education is often shunned. Do you remember the angry discussions about the so-called Tiger Moms? The media tells us constantly what we want to hear so we get this fuzzy warm feeling of supremacy: Chinese only memorize and have no real creativity — either inherently or because of their bad education system.

Inventions can only flourish in a free (stereotype?) society like our Western democracies. How fragile they are we can clearly see in the behavior of both sides of the political spectrum in America right now. Who knows, maybe they never were real, and we just lived a dream.

It is so much easier to dwell in the knowledge that you are so much better than the rest. Otherwise, the Western societies would have had to take action. Many studies in recent years have debunked this idea of the ant-like Chinese mind as a cliché and wishful thinking. Statistics on patents and inventions during the last 20 years tell a hugely different story.

So-called experts say that facts are not really important, because we can look them up online. We should concentrate on competences. Now, these are surely important. Alas, making connections is only possible, if one has more than just some random islands of knowledge. The idea that we only need the expertise to search for information as we could not know all the world´s knowledge anyway, seems rather fatalistic.

Skeptics see the beginning of the end for a knowledge-based society if such an attitude takes hold.

Licking their wounds, Western media tells you that those so-called PISA tests are measuring knowledge in a way that puts too much emphasis on facts rather than competence. Isn´t it nice. You cannot compete and instead of reflecting on your own shortcomings you start to blame the system. That´s the easy way out.

False Western assumption

But I contend: Asian kids in general are playing not only on a higher level in many fields of expertise. They play a different game altogether.

One might argue that this is due to the high respect for education and knowledge in East Asian countries since ancient times. It might have to do with their meritocratic societal system. Knowledge and those who pass it on as well as those who acquire it, are highly respected and encouraged.

So? Western societies prided themselves for centuries to be on the forefront of scientific and cultural development. Reading the classics and studying Latin and Greek was the epitome of higher education, and rightly so. All the great achievements over the centuries have been made by people with a firm basis in classical education because that was the proven standard. Yet, what do we do today? We listen to the pseudo-modern arguments that these old dusty topics are useless and of no value.

On the contrary, Asian societies value their history and revere their cultural heritage, China these days again fervently. The past has much to teach to every generation anew. A firm root in tradition and using it as a valuable resource have always been and will always be the stable ground that a society needs to develop into the future. Western societies claim the same. But are acting differently.

Sayings worth a thought

To illustrate the above, I chose 10 ancient sayings that might shed some light on how deep the respect and love for education is woven into Chinese thought. The interpretations are my own and might not be how one would traditionally interpret them.

1. 书中自有颜如玉,书中自有黄金屋(shū zhōng yǒu nǚ yán rú yù,shū zhōng zì yǒu huáng jīn wū)- In books we could find the girl we are yearning for; In books we could find the Treasure

There you have it. If you want to reach anything in life, the path is clear. Books illuminate it. Books as containers of knowledge are the perfect symbol for the Western saying: Knowledge is power. If you want success you won´t get it the easy way. Only hard work and continuous study leads to success. The Chinese propagated that thought since ancient times. Want to get out of the rat race? Don´t speculate to win the lottery. Sit down and work your butt off! You will learn and you will get to know what you want if you study and develop yourself. Deep insights and skills are all in books. Use knowledge to make something out of yourself. But don´t dwell in books for their own sake forever. The goal -so the saying- is to make something out of yourself by using books to reach your goals. That shows the purpose and striving of many scholars in Ancient China. Books and knowledge have been and always will be an excellent way out.

2. 严师出高徒。 (Yánshī chū gāotú. ‘strict teacher produces brilliant student’) — Strict teachers produce fine students.

There seems to be a trend of pampering children, keeping any harm from them or rather what we deem harmful. Any disappointment, any form of reprimand is seen as damaging for the psyche of a child. Losing seems to be what destroys a child´s soul, not the lack of coping techniques. It might be the opposite.

Life is hard. Denying a young person the valuable experience of defeat so that they learn how to cope with disappointment, might do more harm on the long run. Former sometimes brutal educational traditions may rightly be discarded of. But pampering could weaken a whole society in the end. Asia seems to not (yet) make this mistake.

3. 一寸光阴一寸金,寸金难买寸光阴。(Yícùn guāngyīn yícùnjīn, cùnjīn nán mǎi cùnguāngyīn. ‘1 cun [Chinese inch, 1/30 m] time 1 cun gold, cun gold difficult buy cun time’) — An inch of time is worth an inch of gold, but an inch of gold may not buy an inch of time.

All the money in the world can´t buy one second of lifetime. It might buy you comfort, but not the rarest resource that exists for all of us. And still, as long as humans existed we were striving for distraction and material things. And only once we are old we understand what really counts. That´s the education that life gives us. And only experienced people can pass on this knowledge. That´s why for millennia the elderly were revered, teachers stood in highest respect and still are revered throughout Asia. Heck, China even has a Teacher´s Day!

4. 好记性不如烂笔头。(Hǎojìxìng bù rú lànbǐtóu. ‘good memory not-as-good-as rotten pen’) — A good memory cannot beat a bad pen.

Basic literacy is one of the great steps forward to civilization on par with fire. The moment humans learnt to read and write they managed to transfer knowledge over time and space. This was a quantum leap. The next one was the printing press. And who knows, the recent developments in AI might be the next one.

Chinese put emphasis on writing their extraordinarily complex characters and pressure their children to study them for years on end. A system as complex as the Chinese one will define your way of thinking and therefore also how people approach life. This might explain some of the differences we see between Eastern and Western cultures.

5. 活到老,学到老。(Huó dào lǎo, xué dào lǎo. ‘live till old, study till old.) — Live till you are old, and study till you are old.

Lifelong learning is being promoted in the West as well. One can only hope that enough people understand what it means.

Challenge your mind every day and stay active. That way you will enrich your life more than anything.

Science shows clearly that we need to use our brains if we want to slow the aging process and stay mentally healthy.

How dull would life be if we lost curiosity!

6. 好书如挚友。(Hǎoshū rú zhìyǒu. ‘good book as-good-as close-friend’) — A good book is like a good friend.

This saying reminds me of what Renaissance man Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote. He likened reading ancient literary masterpieces to a conversation with an old and wise friend.

Books open the chance to converse with the giants of old, give us the chance to learn from them and enjoy the company of the greatest of our civilization. What could be more beneficial?

7. 花有重开日,人无再少年。 (Huā yǒu chóng kāi rì, rén wú zài shào nián. ‘flower has again open day, people not again youth’) — Flowers may bloom again; you are never young again.

There is one certainty. Life runs through our fingers like sand. Time is passing unrelentingly.

Each of us has the same amount of time, each day each year. The result of this time depends on how one decides to spend it. Are we wasting it or using it fruitfully?

Worldwide people fall prey to their mobile devices hunting down the next endorphin kick, the next like, the next empty information. Asians are incredibly open to new tech. They are ahead of the curve. In every aspect, good or bad.

Waste your life and in the end you have nothing left. You cannot turn back. Therefore, heed the ancient warning!

8. 书到用时方恨少。 (Shū dào yòngshí fāng hènshǎo. ‘books till use time just-when hate few’) — When using books, you will regret reading few.

Most people only look at the first page that pops up when searching Google or Bing. This however gives you only a superficial idea of things.

It has always been important to understand that one single opinion means nothing. Search for different, especially contrasting views. Facts are facts. But opinions are just views.

There are always different views that you need to consider when evaluating those opinions.

Our own opinion is not necessarily the right one, only because it is ours. Much trouble in this world would be avoided if we could understand this.

9. 学而不思则罔,思而不学则殆。(Xué ér bùsī zé wǎng, sī ér bùxué zé dài. ‘study but not think then deceive, think but not study then dangerous’) — Learning without thought is deceptive; thought without learning is perilous.

This quote directly contradicts the Western prejudice that Chinese only mindlessly memorize and do not even understand the concept of creativity. What an absurd idea!

We are all of the same human race and thus all of us have comparable abilities — on a wide individual scale of course. Why should Asians not be able to think critically?

Not thinking something through and praising empty knowledge without deeper understanding, is a fallacy that everyone can fall prey to. It is not characteristic of a whole culture.

A quick glance at the first paragraph in Wikipedia gives you facts. But are you able and willing to put in the effort to make something out of it?

10. 读书须用意,一字值千金。 (dúshū xū yòngyì, yīzì zhí qiānjīn. ‘reading books needs use attention, one word worth 1,000 gold’) — Reading requires concentration; a word may be worth a fortune.

The more information is available online, the better it is. Or is it?

Who can process all this information? Is it even worth reading? Each generation´s attention span seems to shrink. Who knows if future generations will even be able to concentrate on (what we see as) normal length articles. Let alone longer books. The more complex a text is, the slower one must read. Concentrate on one topic at a time!

Quantity is nothing. Quality everything. Maybe life was easier when we had less electronic distractions and information at our disposition?

Knowledge is infinite

So, there you have it. Knowledge is power and has no limit. In Asia and anywhere else. The big difference -at least it feels that way- is the approach to that fact.

Some time ago, I saw a cartoon about the changes in the Western attitude to education. 50 years ago, teachers told the parents that their offspring had not studied hard enough. In the picture, the parents react by grimly looking at the child. These days -the second picture- the parents threaten at the teacher and blame him for their child´s shortcomings.

One might say: This is a good development. Modern educational methods are much more efficient and are treating the child as a person not a slave. They are fit to develop self-worth and respect for others as well as a healthy self-reliance in kids.

Someone else could argue, that former more conservative educational styles did not produce a horde of mentally unstable zombies and have shaped extraordinarily successful people. Beating a child to death over grades is the wrong way, but assertiveness and challenges are what makes success possible and worth it.

But exactly here seems to lie the difference in Eastern and Western approaches these days. While Asians still predominantly try to strive for excellency and work as hard as they can, many in the West seem to feel entitled to success simply for being who they are. Competition is assumed to be a harmful aspect of life. Disappointment and blame allegedly are the worst thing parents or teachers can do to children.

It might well be that in time a more traditional approach to education and appreciation knowledge like the Asian one (of course this is a generalization, I know) will win the race for excellency in the 21st century.



Bustling Beijing

Long-term German Expat in China. PHD in History. Deep understanding of Chinese Culture. Commentate current Affairs and question the western Stereotype of China.