Zhu Xi and Zhu De. Who's who?
"Histories make us wise and able to predict what will happen today." These words by a well-known Chinese scholar are so true, at least according to my personal experience.
Take two of my doctoral students as examples. About 30 years ago, I supervised a PhD student from a prestigious university on the mainland. He was a brilliant young man with a strong research capability. One day, when I mentioned how the Japanese had treated China's philosopher Zhu Xi (1130–1200) as a God, he was a bit puzzled. "Zhu Xi?" he asked. "I've never heard of him."
Then he added, "Professor Kuo, do you mean Zhu De?" Zhu De (1886–1976) was one of China's greatest military leaders and the founder of the Chinese Communist Army.
When I said Zhu Xi had made great contributions to 理學, a rationalistic Confucian philosophy school, also known as Neo-Confucianism, he asked, "Do you mean 物理學 [physics]? What contributions did Zhu Xi make to physics in China? I only know that Tsung-dao Lee and Chen-Ning Franklin Yang made contributions to this field."
I was dumbfounded by his question. Maybe, I thought, this lack of knowledge is a consequence of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976).
Twenty years later, I had another doctoral student from a leading mainland university. Born in the 1980s, she was cordial, modest and well-poised. I related how my doctoral student mixed up Zhu Xi with Zhu De. Much to my surprise, she said shyly, ducking her head, "Professor Kuo, I'm sorry but I don't know who Zhu Xi is, either. Can you tell me why he is such an important figure?"
However, both anecdotes are overshadowed by a recent experience as I delivered a speech to over 100 top seniors from secondary schools in Hong Kong. I retold the two conversations I had had with my doctoral candidates. To my surprise, many in the audience didn't know the identity of Zhu Xi nor Zhu De!
I couldn't help thinking that not only had these students never tasted beef; they had not even seen a cow walk!
Such experiences are no joke. If not even doctoral students and top high-school students have basic knowledge about history and culture, how about other more mainstream students?
This article was originally published in Chinese in the United Daily News (5 June, 2014).
June 23, 2014