An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Shishuo 師說

Nov 19, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald

Shishuo 師說 "Explanations of teaching" is a treatise on teaching compiled by the Tang-period 唐 (618-907) writer, thinker and politician Han Yu 韓愈 (768-824). It was written around 802 and is influenced by the revival of Confucian thought that crystallized during the later half of the Tang period, and of which Han Yu was the most important proponent.

In the educational concepts of that time, disciples were required to pose questions to their teacher, and to find out about the true "Way" (dao 道) by a question-and-answer principle. Active instructions by the teacher were not regarded as the principle way of learning. Yet Han Yu was the first who suggested that teachers might lecture their students, instead of having them find the truth by asking questions. His contemporatians therefore harshly criticized him. His book nevertheless broke the path for the emergence of the profession of teacher in China.

Han Yu's main argument was that no one will be born with full knowledge, and therefore everyone would need an instructor (gu zhi xue zhe bi you shi 古之學者必有師) who "transmitted the Way" (chuan dao 傳道), "handed down the cause (of Confucian thought)" (shou ye 授業) and solved questions (jie huo 解惑). As a transmitter of the Way, a teacher was required to be himself of the possession of the Confucian Way, not only in theory, but also in practice. He had to refrain from discerning between rich and poor, nobles and commoners, and had to practice the Confucian virtues of benevolence (ren 仁) and righteousness (yi 義).

A student had to seek advice from different teachers, to balance their opinions, had to empty his heart to be open for everything, and not to be ashamed to ask people of lower standing. In this context, Han Yu stressed the ancient principle already established by Confucius, that there had to be a mutual learning between teacher and students, so that both parts progressed towards the finding of the truth, and both sides profited from each other (jiao xue xiang chang 教學相長).

The Shishuo was such a path-breaking text that later generations imitated or expanded it, like Wang Ling 王令 (1032-1059), Shishuo 師說, and Liu Kai 柳開 (948-1001), Xu shishuo 續師說, from the Song period 宋 (960-1279), Li Zhi 李贄 (1527-1602), Zhen shishuo 真師說, and He Xinyin 何心隱 (1517-1579, i.e. Liang Ruyuan 梁汝元), Shishuo 師說 from the Ming period 明 (1368-1644) , Huang Zongxi 黃宗羲 (1610-1695), Xu shishuo 續師說 (to be found in the collection Nanlei wen’an 南雷文案) from the Qing period 清 (1644-1911), and two books with the title Guang shishuo 廣師說, one written by Zheng Xiaocang 鄭曉, and one by Zhang Shunhui 張舜徽 (1911-1992), both during the Republican period (1912-1949). There is also a chapter called Shishuo that is part of the collection Yichuan xiansheng yu 伊川先生語, the discourses of Cheng Yi 程頤 (1033-1107; see Er Cheng yishu 二程遺書).

Han Yu's Shishuo is part of his collected writings Changli xiansheng ji 昌黎先生集.

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