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September 9, 2023

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A sage’s wisdom eclipses knowledge learnt in books

FOR more than 1,300 years in feudal China, a system of imperial examinations was used to select government officials. Students and scholars studied for years, or sometimes decades, to pass examinations at different government levels and start usually privileged careers in officialdom.

There’s a folk story about one such student.

One day, on his way to the capital to sit the final imperial examination, the young man stayed overnight at an old Buddhist temple. After the supper, he had an interesting conversation with an old monk there.

The monk said that people claimed everything in the world is either male or female, and he asked his guest how to differentiate the male and female of seawater or trees.

The young man racked his brains but couldn’t come up with an answer.

The monk then explained that for the seawater, billows are male and waves are female because males are usually bigger than females. For trees, the pine is male because the Chinese character for it (松) contains a male radical, and the plum tree is female because it has a female component in the word (梅).

The student found the answer interesting but not very convincing.

However, it happened that the title of the thesis for the imperial examination that year was “On the Gender of All Things in the World.”

So, the student quoted what the monk said in his thesis. Surprisingly, he not only passed the examination but came in first.

The young man was so grateful to the old monk that he later presented the holy man a tablet with an inscription reading: “To chat with you for one night is better than to study for 10 years.”

Today, the inscription has been rephrased into a common Chinese saying, yujun yixihua, shengdu shinianshu, which means a single conversation with a wise man is more helpful than months or years of study.

In other words, wisdom is sometimes more important than knowledge.


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