Sunday, June 21, 2009

Xue Wen and Zhi Shi

There are two terms in Chinese that people usually cannot distinguish. They are:

Xue Wen 學問 - learn and ask
Zhi Shi 知識 - know and understand.

The latter can be translated as knowledge but the former has no English equivalent. This term is also interesting in the order of the two words Xue 學 coming before Wen 問. That is to say, you have to learn before you ask. Isn't it the right order?

A lot of people ask questions before they learn. When they take a course and encounter difficulty in reading the course book, they ask immediately. This is not the right thing to do because they ask without first learning. The term is Xue Wen and not Du Wen 讀問 (read and ask). The reason why you should learn before you ask is because by doing so, you will understand the answer much better. Sometimes, you don't even have to ask because you will find the answer yourself even though it may not be explicitly given in the textbook. This is the way I learn and therefore also the way I teach.

The other term is Zhi Shi (know and understand). Knowledge is not just something you know. It must be something you understand. What you know is just information given to you. From books and the internet, you can get information but not knowledge. Information can be transformed into knowledge through learning and asking. Of course whether this is successful will depend on the information provider and the knowledge acquirer.



Mary Catherine Bax said...

Dear Joseph,

Zhi Shi! Is it the same as we know (but yet to understand ;-) in QMDJ?


Joseph Yu said...

Dear Mary,

As in all courses, what percentage of the information becomes knowledge depends on the student.

JY said...

Dear Joseph,

I don't know a word of Chinese, but it seems to me that the first term (Xue Wen) would be better translated as "study ask".

In English "learn" and "study" are two very different terms.
Learning has nothing to do with asking, learning is inherent to life. We start learning as soon as we are born and we continue learning till we die. It is perfectly possible to learn without studying, just like one can also study without learning. This shows us how these words are different.

Studying is basically an attempt to speed up the learning process. If study is done properly, then we will learn certain things faster then we would do without the effort (of study).

And when we talk about study, then things like teachers and asking come into the picture.


Now, when it comes to asking, where is it's proper place?
Personally I don't agree with this idea that the asking should come after the learning.
In fact all study (attempt to learn) already starts with a question, we want to know certain things and these unsolved questions prompt us into study.
We are hungry for answers to our unsolved questions.
So ask is already the first thing, not the last one.
And each new information may bring up new questions, so it is much more a dialectic process, and questions/asking will continue to appear throughout the study.
It makes no sense to postpone questions till the end, because often the study cannot continue as long as some basic concepts are not defined and understood properly. So such questions will have to be addressed and solved in the beginning.
So I think the term Xue Wen simply means that study and ask go hand and hand, they alternate all the time. It is not that one comes before the other, it is more a chicken and egg kind of thing..
We ask "during" study, not only after.

Imo students should ask whenever a question comes up to them.
If they ask something that will be addressed and come clear in a later chapter, then the teacher can simply say so. It is not a problem at all.
But if their question is about some basic concept, then it may need to be addressed first.

That's also the difference between a rigid and a flexible teacher.
With a flexible teacher you can ask anything anytime.
But they are more rare to find.


Joseph Yu said...

Dear Danny,

Not exactly. The word "learn" is the closest in English to the word "Xue 学" in Chinese. For example:

"Xue Xing 学行" is "learning how to walk". It is not "studying how to walk".

"Xue Chang Ge 学唱歌" is "learning to sing songs". It is not "studying to sing songs".

A baby learns fast as soon as it is born. You may wonder how can a new born baby ask questions. Well, we do not necessarily ask someone else questions. We may ask ourselves questions and try to figure out the answer ourselves. A baby learns how to get attention by crying. It learns how to use different ways to cry to get attention in different situations. It may be hungry, it may have wetted its diapers, it may feel unomfortable in a certain way. It learns how to express itself to suit the different situations. The parents also learn how to distinguish the different kinds of crying. We learn through asking ourselves. Asking is also to express your desire to know. It can be explicitly done or implicitly kept to oneself.

To study, according to Webster Dictionary, is to read in detail espcially with the intention of learning. The process is 1) to have the intention to know something in detail, 2) to read, 3) to ask.

Without making an effort to learn, any question asked may be a waste of time because you do not know what to ask and how to ask. Yes, studying something is a continous process and questions have to be asked at different stages. There is to be no ending. Asking is not the ending part of acquiring knowledge. It is the appropriate part of the sequence of events.

My teaching experience is that during a seminar, students should write down their questions during the lecture and not ask the question right away. It disturbs the teaching. When the time comes when there is a time for questions, the student sometimes finds that there is actually no need to ask because he knows the answer already.

JY said...

>We learn through asking ourselves.

Dear Joseph,

I think this sentence sums up perfectly what I was trying to say.

More often than not the asking comes before the learning.
As you say, the learning comes "through" the asking (ourselves). So this means the asking came first.


Antje said...

Dear Joseph, dear Danny,

A colleague told me some days ago that the word "to learn" is also used in modern language as synonym for "to hear something/become aware of something", i.e. "he learnt yesterday that his friend is sick".

So without more context the translation "learn and ask" could also be understood as "to read or hear and immediately ask".

My dictionary gives several meanings for "learn":
- to acquire knowledge, skills
- teach (to learn somebody)
- to master
- to become aware of something (to learn about something)

While the Chinese character 学 [學] xué means according to the online dictionary something like "imitate, copy, copycat, emulate, counterfeit, mimic, learn, study..."

So it´s no surprise when even simple sounding words easily lead to very different interpretations... and finally to a different behaviour...

BTW the Chinese character 学 [學] itself looks similar to the character for "character"/"writing"/"word" etc. 字 [字] zì.
The latter shows a child/son under a roof. According to my information it meant in earlier times something like "to feed, to bring up, to raise, to rear, to support, to nourish" - the sons had to support the family. And nowadays the character 字 means "son of thoughts".

Eventually the two additional points on the *roof* of 学 might be the clue. But what do they add to meaning?


Simon said...

Dear Antje,

According to the difference is not only some additional points. :) In my reading 学 [學] means acquiring new knowledge by deep understanding.

Antje said...

Dear Simon,

Thank you very much for the link to the Zong Wen.

> In my reading 学 [學] means acquiring new knowledge by deep understanding. <

But this meaning is not directly from the dictionary/Zong Wen... ;-)

Just noticed that it is also part of the Chinese names of a University and often last part of any university fields of studying (数学, 兽医学).

As "one word":
Zhi Shi 知識 = know-how, mastery

Xué Shì 学识 / 学識 = scholarship, wisdom, erudition, wide reading, knowleadgebleness

The Zhi Shi sounds to me more as focus on practising while the latter is more with focus on theory.
Does that make sense?


BTW when 辛 [xīn] means criminal ("somebody seriously offending superiors") and 宰 [宰] zǎi is a criminal judged under court roof (or prime minister in early China), then probably adding "two points" to the roof might mean a criminal with a deep understanding...? :-)

Simon said...

Dear Antje,

Yes, it is my completely opinion, which based on the following:

Character 學 is the traditional form for Xué. In the simplified form ( 学 ) the upper part is only three small strokes or dots. The "cover" ( 冖 ) remained the same in both forms. The reading of the upper part is "hands reaching down" or "lowered hands" ( 臼 ). Together with the "cover", they mean "unveil, uncover".

Character 子 represents "seed, germ, child" which is under 爻 - "mutual interaction, intersection, interwoven, mixed".

So character 學 can mean "something new unveiled by mutual interaction" (i.e. a new knowledge acquired by profound, substantial, deep understanding, by direct experience).

See some details in this book (page 69-70, characters 82a-c, 82):

Sherab Wong said...

I have learned so much here... but sometimes I think, the unlearning process is as impotant as the learnind ones....


Antje said...

Dear Simon,

The book on how to learn chinese characters looks really good, the character became much clearer now, thanks for the hint.
Thank you also for your extensive explanation. The hands which unveil or uncover something are interesting.

Found coincidentally a quote from Jean-Jacques Rosseau (1712-1778) which might work as a more intellectual translation of the Xue Wen 學問 :-)

"Man muss viel gelernt haben, um ueber das, was man nicht weiss, fragen zu koennen."

"One must have learnt/experienced enough/a lot for being able to ask for/about what one doesn´t know (yet)."

Maybe someone else has a better translation into English...

@Sherab: Do you mean "unlearning" in the sense of forgetting or changing old/wrong understanding/knowledge/beliefs into new understanding/knowledge/beliefs?


Sherab Wong said...

Hi Antje,
Yes you can say so.
You can only pour some great tea into an empty cup.
Many ppl are "full" of knowledge, but lack of experience and wisdom.
Sometimes u need to take away their learned/borrowed knowledge in order to give them some direct experience.

Zen does this best when she asks:
"Who is reading this now???"