Lessons from Dizi Gui: Persistence and Curiosity Maketh the Renaissance Man
Jade Pearce, 14 Aug 17

Dizi Gui (Standards for Being a Good Student and Child) is an ancient Chinese text for children that teaches moral values and proper etiquette. It was written during the Qing Dynasty during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1661-1722) by Li Yuxiu.

Beneath the conservative, “old-school” verbose of this ancient classic, one can still find gems of wisdom that remain surprisingly relevant to our modern society. A new lesson is covered in each issue.

Throughout the ages, countless people have devoted themselves to the task of studying. Yet not everyone becomes a learned individual, and even fewer become known as some of the greatest minds in history – Plato, Confucius, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Isaac Newton, to name a few.

What made these great intellectuals rise above others? Consistently, all these individuals possessed curiosity and persistence. They constantly asked questions and persisted in answering those questions, whether through fervent study or discussion. They lived by a singular belief: “If I devote enough time and effort, I will thoroughly understand.” [Dizi Gui]

Time was not an issue, but effort was imperative. The following story illustrates the persistence in intellectual pursuit that made Confucius one of the greatest minds in Chinese history.

Breaking the Book Binder Three Times

During his latter years in the Spring and Autumn Period, Confucius spent a lot of time studying The Book of Changes (I Ching), an ancient divination text and the oldest of the Chinese classics.

Paper had not yet been invented at the time. Instead, words were written on strips of bamboo. Books were made by stringing many bamboo strips together with cowhide string (called “wei”). The book was rolled up when stored, and rolled open as it was read.

Since The Book of Changes had very profound vocabulary and content, Confucius would flip back and forth through the book in order to comprehend its meaning. He studied the book so feverishly that he wore out and broke the cowhide string several times.

Despite that, Confucius remained unsatisfied with his understanding of the book. He once said, “If I can live longer, I may understand its content even better."

This anecdote of Confucius inspired the Chinese saying “breaking the book binder three times”, which describes a person who studies assiduously and diligently.

Confucius’ dedication to studying the ancient classics inside-out was a key factor to his success as one of China’s greatest philosophers. The more he studied these profound classics, the more his knowledge and understanding grew. His thoughts and philosophy were so profound, that they were enough for one man to govern the Song Dynasty.

Confucius, one of China’s greatest minds, inspired the Chinese saying “breaking the book binder three times” for his persistence in pursuing the truth. (Internet Times)

Governing With Only Half The Analects of Confucius

Zhao Pu, the first Prime Minister of the Song Dynasty, was key to helping the first Emperor of the Song Dynasty, Emperor Song Taizu, unify the country. After Emperor Song Taizu died, his younger brother, Emperor Song Taizong, succeeded the throne.

Rumours eventually reached the new emperor that Zhao Pu’s knowledge was shallow, and that he had only read The Analects of Confucius. People said that it was grossly inadequate for a prime minister to have read only one book.

When Song Taizong asked Zhao Pu about this rumour, Zhao Pu replied honestly, “What I know is indeed not more than this book. In the past, I used half the book to assist Emperor Taizu to pacify the kingdom. Now, I also use half the book to help Your Majesty, and the result is that there is peace throughout the country.”

Later, when Zhao Pu died of illness, his family opened his book cache and indeed found only twenty chapters of The Analects of Confucius inside.

Today, the Chinese saying “Half of The Analects of Confucius” is used to emphasize the profoundness of Confucian thoughts.

The Inquisitive Mind: Leonardo Da Vinci

A second simple but important trait of great minds is to keep a notebook. “When I have questions, I will write them down right away; that way I can ask others and learn the true meaning.” [Dizi Gui]

The legendary Leonardo da Vinci was born out of wedlock to a peasant and a lawyer, and did not receive any formal eduation in Greek and Latin as a child.

Yet he became the most diversely talented person ever to have lived in the Western world – he was one of the greatest painters of all time, and excelled as a sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, and engineer.

This Renaissance man got to where he was not just with an inquisitive mind, but with his meticulous study and documentation of his observations of the world around him.

Da Vinci’s notes consisted of 13,000 pages of writings, mostly in mirror-image cursive, and drawings of everything from animals to aeroplanes.

His notes cover a breathtaking range of topics in astonishing detail. In art, there are compositions for paintings, studies of details and drapery, of faces and emotions, and of light, perception, and depth. In nature, there are studies of animals, infants, anatomic dissections, plant studies, rock formations, whirlpools, and the flight of birds. In science and engineering, there are discussions on optics, astronomy, hydraulics, and designs for flying machines, war machines, and construction equipment.

To give an example, a single volume of his five pocket notebooks in Codex Forster contained notes on geometry, weights and hydraulics interspersed with sketches of horses’ legs, what might be designs for ball costumes and a description of the anatomy of the human head.

Like a true Renaissance man, da Vinci saw no mutually exclusive boundaries between the sciences and the arts. His notes and drawings fused art and natural philosophy in extraordinary ways - his study of anatomical dissections contributed just as much to his genius as a painter.

Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of The Vitruvian Man in his notes. The drawing is based on the correlations of ideal human proportions with geometry, as described by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius. (Wikimedia Commons)

When da Vinci painted “The Last Supper,” he would sit in the market endlessly studying the anatomy of people, observing their facial expressions and hand gestures to achieve the right look for each character. Every gesture comes from a thought, and da Vinci broke away from the stoic, stiff portraits of the past and painted people in natural poses, imbuing them with a life of their own.

Da Vinci’s study of nature, sight, and perception were also incorporated in his paintings. Unlike most painters of his time, Leonardo made distant objects appear even more realistic by painting them less distinctly and in more muted colours – just as how objects from afar appear to the human eye in real life.

The depth and breath of da Vinci’s notes continue to awe and inspire people today, teaching us to probe big questions with as much intensity and determination as he did, and to record our thoughts and observations.

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