Good Advice for Study

Ancient prose from the Xunzi, in seal script

After finishing the book on Han Feizi, I started reading the book written by the famous Confucian scholar Xunzi (荀子, 312–230 BC), particularly the Burton Watson translation. Xunzi is pronounced like “shoon-tsih” by the way.1 Like all Confucian scholars, he is very focused on learning, self-improvement, and adhering to ritual. Coincidentally, he is also the teacher of Han Feizi, which helped to ruin his own reputation.

But the first couple chapters are pretty interesting, and there were some good quotes I wanted to pass along, mostly on learning and self-improvement:

The gentleman says: Learning should never cease. (pg. 15)


Children born among the Han or Yue people of the south and among the Mo barbarians of the north cry with the same voice at birth, but as they grow older they follow different customs. Education causes them to differ. (pg. 15)


…unless you pile up little steps, you can never journey a thousand li; unless you pile up tiny streams, you can never make a river or sea. The finest thoroughbred cannot travel ten paces in one leap, but the sorriest nag can go a ten days’ journey. Achievement consists in never giving up. If you start carving and then give up, you cannot even cut through a piece of rotten wood; but if you if you persist without stopping, you can carve and inlay metal or stone. Earthworms have no sharp claws or teeth, no strong muscles or bones, and yet above ground they feast upon the mud, and below they drink at the yellow springs. This is because they keep their minds on one thing. Crabs have six legs and two pincers, but unless they can find an empty hole dug by a snake or a water serpent, they have no place to lodge. This is because they allow their minds to go off in all directions. (pg. 18)


Of all the ways to order the temperament and train the mind, none is more direct than to follow ritual, none more vital to find a teacher, none more godlike than to learn to love one thing alone. This is called the proper way to order the temperament and train the mind. (pg. 28).

And finally:

Rather than achieve success in the service of an unprincipled ruler, it is better to follow what is right in the service of an impoverished ones. A good farmer does not give up plowing just because of flood or drought; a good merchant does not stop doing business just because of occasional losses; a gentleman does not neglect the Way just because of poverty and hardship. (pg. 28)

I frequently feel like the example of the “crab”, going in all directions, accomplishing nothing. It’s a good reminder to focus on something and quietly persist until you succeed. :)

But with regard to language studies, or any such studies, I think Xunzi’s advice is really helpful. It’s not about big “leaps” like the thoroughbred, but more about taking small steps persistently, and not worrying about setbacks and such. Also, if you stop now, you will never improve. If you don’t give and keep making small improvements, someday you’ll be an accomplished person.

I sometimes have to remind myself of these last two points. I often find myself discouraged while learning Korean not because it’s hard, but because I speak it so poorly, and I feel like I still have so much to learn. I haven’t had much chance to practice with native speakers, and I’ve had a few embarrassing incidents in recent weeks, so I sometimes want to give up.

But if I give up now, I will always speak it poorly.

If I want to succeed, I need to stop focusing on the amount of information to learn, or whether I am “good enough”. I shouldn’t try to be like the thoroughbred, but instead be like the old ‘nag’ and take small, steady steps.

Thank you, Xunzi.

P.S. Also thanks to everyone for their sagely advice and encouragement lately. :-)

1 Actually the “Xun” part sounds more like a German ü than English “oo”, if you have happen to know some German.

About Doug 陀愚

A Buddhist, Father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
This entry was posted in Confucius, Japanese, Korean, Language, Literature. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Good Advice for Study

  1. yanyanyan70 says:

    Really inspirational! Thank you!

  2. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Glad it helped. :D

  3. Danny C says:

    This is great advice. I have the problem of starting things that I never finish, especially in the field of language. I can’t tell you how many languages I’ve looked at, yet I’m still only fluent in English. If I don’t dedicate the time and focus on at least one, I’ll never be fluent in anything but English.

    -Danny C

  4. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Danny,

    You me both. :-p

    Glad it’s useful. :-)

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