Monday, 15 July 2013

授人以鱼,不如授之以渔 (1)

Thanks for all the fish (2)
'Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.'
This 'old Chinese proverb' is often misattributed to Lao Tzu (Laozi), the originator of Taoism; to Confucius; and to Gun Zhong.

Attaching such a saying to the name of an ancient Chinese sage confers rather more apparent authority than does the suggestion that it originated in English in the mid 1880s, in the novel Mrs Diamond, written by Anne Isabella Ritchie, the daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray.

If the origin of this saying in English weren't obscure enough, in Chinese it is even more so. It definitely does NOT come from the writings of Lao Tzu, Confucius or Gun Zhong. My Chinese mentor assures me of what my reading suggests, that its origin is controversial! Its wording, I am told, suggests the style of the late Qin era and the early Republic (that is the first forty or so years of the twentieth century). It seems highly likely that around that time some anonymous Chinese intellectual came across this comforting thought, originating from Anne Isabella Ritchie's probably even then forgotten novel, rewrote it in his own translated words, and graced it with an ancient origin.

Does anybody know where or how this entered the unquestioned canon of Conductive Education lore? In this context the supposed proverb presumably implies that it is more worthwhile to teach people to do things for themselves than it is to do things for them. Fair enough...

Sometimes, it has been said to me, we me need myths and legends more than we do facts. Precisely so, many people do need just that, for all sorts of reasons, and sometimes it may be a cruelty to deny people their opiates.

Myths offer traditional stories that in pre-scientific times served as default explanation and justification of the world as it was Personally, however, I lean towards the advantages of urging more scientific understandings (3).

1    Old Chinese proverb (allegedly)
2    Douglas Adams: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
3    Not least for reasons of plausibility. Dubious 'old Chinese proverbs' are no basis for public advocacy and acceptance in the twenty-first century. There are surly more acceptable ways available to express pedagogic principle.

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