The Intrinsic Value of Learning in Chinese Culture

One of the hallmarks of the Chinese culture is the deference accorded those with high scholastic attainments. This is due to the pervasive influence of Confucianism, which has dominated Chinese thought and way of life for upwards of 2000 years.

In the traditional Chinese social pecking order, men of learning would be the creme de la creme of society as they would be Junzi (men of integrity), while the merchant class would be consigned to the bottom of it. The rationale was that the exploitation of profit would invariably corrode one’s morals and character. The pre-eminence of learned men had led to the old adage that “the only worthy pursuit in life is to be a man of letters”. Not surprisingly then, most bright and ambitious Chinese youth would aspire to be Confucian scholars through passing the various levels of the highly competitive nation-wide Imperial Examinations. Even the most brilliant students would take years of relentless slogging to pass the highest level of these examinations, and be conferred a top degree equivalent to the modern PhD degree. These successful candidates would then be offered administrative appointments in the coveted Imperial Civil Service, with its attendant honour, power and prestige and reflected glory for their families and clans. The best among them would reach its top echelons. Many who failed the lower examinations would often end up either as village teachers or would opt for potentially lucrative commercial careers, with its promise of riches and sumptuous living for those who had amassed vast fortunes.

Despite being regarded as social pariahs by the aloof and exclusive officialdom who were predominantly Confucian literati, prosperous businessmen could, by virtue of their wealth, still gain some measure of respectability by giving generously to government-sponsored projects or by becoming philantrophists to help the needy. This would earn them minor imperial awards which would immediately uplift their social standing. If you visit some ancient towns and villages in China, particularly those in Shanxi, Zhejiang and Anhui provinces, you can still see concrete evidence of the faded splendour of the imposing mansions previously occupied by these rich merchants and their descendants and take a peek into their once glittering lifestyle.

Time has marched on ceaselessly since then, and in today’s China the impact of Confucianism is no longer as omnipotent as in bygone eras due to political and social changes. Its adherence was even condemned during the infamous Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which was a dark period in its long history. It also has diminishing appeal to the younger generation. With China rapidly becoming a powerful world economy since the 1990s, the pursuit of wealth is now the all-consuming national obsession, and takes precedence over almost anything else. The hitherto lowly merchant class is now the toast of society. Men of learning, while still respected, have lost much of the pre-eminence they once commanded.

In other Asian countries, such as Singapore, where Confucianism has percolated and taken roots, and where people of Chinese descent form a large proportion of the population, the teachings of the renowned sage would appear to be  more alive and kicking than in its country of birth. Academic distinctions per se are still more highly valued, certainly no less than successes in politics, business or any other fields of human endeavours. A good example is the thriving private tuition industry here. Parents would make all sacrifices in order to ensure that their offspring’s have a good education so that they would be well equipped to meet the formidable challenges ahead.

A unique government educational innovation is that an employee’s retirement savings in the Central Provident Fund can be utilised to help finance one’s children’s tertiary education. Much government resources have been poured into Singapore’s educational system to provide students with standards of instruction that are comparable with the best elsewhere, and with the most up-to-date facilities and amenities that are the envy of other countries. The brainiest of our students are offered government scholarships, based primarily on examination results, to study in the most famous universities overseas and those who excel academically are recruited into its elite Administrative Service, from which many of Singapore’s future leaders often emerge. It is a recent phenomenon that more and more mid-career university graduates in both the public and private sectors are taking up part-time off-campus long-distance doctorate degree courses offered by some recognised foreign universities. These courses will take about 4 years, and the fees and related expenses to be incurred are substantial. In one leading high school alone, some 20 of its teachers are currently enrolled in these academic programmes!

Yet another rather unique feature of Singapore’s social scene is the growing number of successful Singaporean men and women, with or without tertiary education and quite a few are self-made business people, being awarded foreign honorary doctorate degrees, usually by lesser known US-based universities, in recognition of their prominence in politics, business, community services or other spheres of human activities. Those who accepted these honorary accolades would often take tremendous pride in using their new exalted academic prefix ”Dr” in every day life for all to know, a practice not found in most Western societies, and would happily discard the the previous more commonplace “Mr” form of address. Quite understandably, the usage of such honorary doctorate conferment in these circumstances could come as a surprise to their friends and business associates and may even arouse their curiosity as to how this honour came about. This could sometimes lead to embarrassing or amusing situation arising between both parties. While one may support or disagree with this practice, depending on one’s perception of it , my view is that its common usage by the incumbents does convey clearly to all and sundry that, in the former’s opinion and that of the conferring institutions, their achievements in life make them a fit and proper person to join the ranks of the eminently learned people. It  is also a convincing testimony to the above quoted adage that “the only worthy pursuit in life is to be a man of letters”.

I am sanguine that these recipients would no doubt derive far greater satisfaction in gaining such academic recognition and the prestige associated with it than if they were to make an additional million or two from their business ventures. If this is not an enduring legacy of Confucianism on the intrinsic value of learning, I don’t know what is?


Lam Pin Foo
(20.1.07)

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2 thoughts on “The Intrinsic Value of Learning in Chinese Culture

  1. Your article is insightful!! I have become fascinated by the value of intrinsic learning as a model for parents who are developing a Parenting Style. Many young American married couples who anticipate a family tend to be less authoritarian, but without a specific “handbook” regarding the principals of child development and training.

    Those that actively us corporal punishment fail and those that try to just let the child grow up “naturally” fail to have good results.

    Your thought lead in the right direction. Thank you!

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