Hear one, know ten

Recently, while watching Japanese TV with my daughter, we saw another episode of the children’s show, nihongo de asobo, which teaches children classic Japanese texts and wisdom with a modern, artistic spin. In this episode, they briefly showed a quotation from Confucius as recorded in the Analects (called rongo, 論語 in Japanese):

(ichi wo kiite, tō wo shiru)

Trouble is, since the show is for Japanese audiences, not dumb foreigners like me, I didn’t know what exactly it meant. At face value, it means something like “hear one thing, know ten”, but I didn’t understand the context, or if I was missing something else. Some Google searches helped me pin down where it was in the Analects, book 5, verse 9. Professor Charles Muller has a great translation of the Analects online:

[5:9] Confucius, speaking to Zigong said, “Who is superior, you or Hui?” Zigong answered, saying: “How could I compare myself to Hui? He hears one point and understands the whole thing. I hear one point and understand another.”

Confucius said, “You are not equal to him; you are right, you are not equal to him.”

For comparison, here’s a slightly different translation by Prof. Burton Watson available in print:

The Master questioned Zigong, saying, Between you and Hui, which is the better man? Zigong replied, How could I dare hope to equal Hui? Hui hears one part and understands ten. I hear one part and understand two.

The Master said, No you are not his equal. You and I are neither of us his equal.

This seems like a cryptic section of the Analects, but some background may help. Among Confucius’s disciples, Yan Yuan (顏淵), whose personal name was “Hui”, was his most beloved and devout disciple. According to history, Hui had grown up from a poor and troubled family, and became a devoted disciple to Confucius and revered him, but Hui died young from disease, and Confucius frequently laments the loss of Hui. Zigong is another prominent disciple of Confucius, but throughout the Analects, most of Confucius’s disciples have their “foibles” or shortcomings. They’re good disciples, but not perfect, and Hui was the closest thing Confucius had to a perfect disciple.

As to the original phrase I was researching, clearly the point is that one is wise and a good listener when they can hear one thing, and thoroughly grasp the topic. I think this requires more than just intelligence but a willingness to listen attentively and not put on airs. As someone who tends to talk more than I listen, it’s a good point to bear in mind. :)

2 Comments on “Hear one, know ten”

  1. Kyōshin says:

    Hi Doug, See also:

    “I only instruct the eager and enlighten the fervent. If I hold up one corner and a student cannot come back to me with the other three, I do not go on with the lesson.” (Analects 7.8).

    This saying was popular in Zen circles.

  2. Jonathan says:

    What a great post. Insightful and thought-provoking…

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