Many non-Chinese have realized that learning the spoken language is not enough; to truly understand the hearts of the usually soft spoken Chinese race, they will need to learn the thinking philosophy and the history of the Chinese people. There are ethnic behavioral patterns so sublime that many overseas Chinese who lost the ability to speak and read their language, still appear conservative and reserved to their counterparts in many aspects of life. It is this underlying philosophy you have to read deeply to understand.
We have to study the Imperial Exam System of ancient China, most notably the Ming Dynasty. Yes, the dynasty which our Hung Gar founders fought to revive. The Imperial Exam was an established nationwide Education System. It’s like the national university of China, with several degrees for students to specialize in.
In the Tang Dynasty, some advisers told the emperor that they value literature, poetry and good language ability, but it has no co-relation to governance of the provinces. Thus from then onwards, in the Song as well as the Ming Dynasty, besides poetry and literacy ability, they focused on practical knowledge and skills, like practical questions such as dealing with natural disasters such as flooding, drought, plagues and famines. Beyond graduating from the imperial exam, there were even specialized degrees in the Song Dynasty for medicine, mathematics and astronomy. Those were the ancient Chinese equivalent to the School of Engineering, School of Medicine, School of Hard Sciences and School of Social Sciences. Very scientific.
Ming Hong Wu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang told his imperial tutors not to teach his children to memorize passages but practical subjects, like how to treat a horse if it falls sick, which is of great importance to armies of their time which were dependant on horses. His son emperor Yongle told the exam officials to set questions that tests practical problem solving ability and knowledge on a broad scope. Such practical learning are on the same level of prestige and academic value as Confucian classics. Indeed, in the Song and the Ming Dynasties we had many ancient books or encyclopedias written by imperial officials about many different topics, such as geography and naval warfare and engineering knowledge to build ships and weapons. The real ancient Chinese were not the stereotype pacifist bookish poets as many people think today!
The Seven Military Classics and the Wu Jing Zong Yao (Military Classics Summary) has chapters dedicated to flood prevention and famine relief, many of which claimed the lives of other civilizations in other parts of the world. Of course, there were many times when the imperial court just made imperial exams rote memorization based and those were bad times when bureaucracy stagnated progress of the empire. That is our stereotype fat corrupt official uncle who put red tape all over the system allowing only their own clan into the crony system. This kind of fat complacent guy does not seek knowledge after he cleared the imperial exam and gained his social status. They do not care about their country and its people more than they want to give their own family generations of money to spend. This usually happens towards the end of dynasties and it can cripple nation and jeopardizing the people’s welfare and livelihood.
China was the first country in the world to have a nationwide education system. Many people believe after watching movies like Harry Potter that the British had been scholars, degree holders and refined gentlemen since the days of King Arthur and some believe, the days of the Stone Henge. However the truth is, centuries ago much of the British nobility were uneducated, they just had noble titles and great inheritance. It was the monks in the monasteries who were educated scholars, the intellectual elite. Many scientists such as Isaac Newton did self study, as there was no nationwide exam. About 200 years ago, the British civil service learned it from China, using exams to recruit civil servants. Thus the concept of having a nationwide exam which originated in China, spread all over the world.
I suppose many of the cohort topping East Asian students in colleges and universities all over the Western countries have some imperial scholar blood in them. From what we can see in today’s worldwide anglophone education system, there is a surplus of degree holders. I still remember in my generation we in Singapore were still memorizing exam questions and answers for the English education system. I think instead of further inflation of the education system, we should start to become self taught problem solvers, like the innovators and scientists who contributed to the archives of knowledge despite not being in the system. Today we might need new disciplines to stay relevant in the quick progressing world, such as being media savvy, and programming and making apps and AI.
The moral of the story is, it is problem solving that will drive people to acquire knowledge, that is a higher level of morality than simply Sheng Guan Fa Cai 升官发财, which means to rise up in social status to become a government official and become wealthy, only for the benefit of one’s own family. I hope people, be it Chinese or non Chinese can respect the Chinese classics, and of course also respect skilled and knowledgeable people who did not grow up getting degrees in the education system.
Article by Leroy Kwok