The Master said, “I will not open the door for a mind that is not already striving to understand, nor will I provide words to a tongue that is not already struggling to speak. If I hold up one corner of a problem, and the student cannot come back to me with the other three, I will not attempt to instruct him again.”    (Confucius, Analects 7.8, tr. Slingerland)

All of the ancient teachers followed this principle, and probably all real teachers everywhere. They know that knowledge is not something that can be “spread,” and that people only learn what they think for themselves. The genuine student, the one who seriously wants to learn and is receptive, strives to understand and struggles to speak. The opposite of glib, and holding high standards of clarity, a student is only too aware of how difficult it is to find the right words for things that matter. A real teacher will perceive the struggle and love the student for it.

   Every pre-18th century thinker that I have read holds up one corner and expects us — sometimes teases and provokes us — to find others. Perhaps one misleading thing in every translation of this Analect is the translator’s insertion of the article “the” when it is absent in the original. “The other three” makes it sound as if the teacher wants the student to tell him what he is hiding in his pocket. This may look attractive to a mind in search of an omniscient guru, but it turns teaching into a trivial game. In fact, serious teachers are also model learners, and more aware than anyone else of what they do not know in the face of fathomless reality. Thus, they delight in being surprised by the student, and take joy whenever the student discovers something the teacher did not know.  They show one corner and want the student to find three more. Delight in teaching is really the same as delight in learning; each spills out of the other.


5 thoughts on “Corners”

  1. Krishnan,
    This is the classic example of Chinese didactic speech of a teacher or even a parent to a child. It is just the nature of Chinese manner of speech. In a western sense it is like mixing popular pop song with a bit of jazz and bluegrass and country. The Chinese language is a ‘pictorial’ language framed up by the building blocks of pictograms of Chinese brush stroke characters.
    The 3 instances cited all illustrate the same ‘idea’ that Confucius was attempting to project or exhort. They are different perspectives or views of the same ‘idea’. They are just different brush strokes on the same subject being painted. One stroke can be broad and flat, another could be slim and fine, and yet another could coarse and brash.
    My father who was illiterate would have added a 4th instance or more. He compensated for not being able to write by being more loquacious, spinning a discourse into a yarn, lacing and intertwining it with more colloquialism and aphorism. He would have said – ‘How to begin a journey if the left leg refuse to move?’ or ‘How can 2 minds (or friends) meet to talk when 1 is dead?’ Well, that is how Chinese talk, well, at least the Chinese Chinese, as I am Westernised. I have the advantage when I read Confucius. I pretend he is my father personified as a scholar!
    Here the ‘idea’ is about dialogue or discussion or solving a mutual problem or reconciliation or simply mutual effort or endeavour.
    That metaphor of the corner must be viewed like trying to fold a handkerchief or scarf or a nappy. It is about a flow or process of two or more parties solving a problem. Speaking metaphorically, I hold up one corner, the other must actively attempt to hold up one of the other 3, and if he does, and only then, can I hold up another corner in response or pursuit, and then other in a last flurry then holds up the last corner and through the mutual orchestral process the problem is thus solved.

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  2. I wish that one day someone would translate Confucius in such a way that he speaks with this earthy vernacular directness and not like a stuffy old fuddy-duddy using archaic terms that no one ever uses. All the great ancients have their own peculiar ways of speaking, and of using conventional terms unconventionally. The “tradition,” however, has to translate them in line with orthodoxy! — and thus ruin them. So — let’s do a version of Confucius in exactly the way your rather would speak!


  3. Krishnan,
    The problem is probably in the Chinese written language of brushstroke characters of logograms or pictograms or hieroglyphics as some might put it, and where you have to synonymously interpret the vocabulary connotation of the word as well as the imagery, like a picture speaks a thousand words.
    Also unlike other languages, Chinese characters when written in a certain manner or even spoken in a certain manner can be like a cartoon, can be used as satire, allegory, can conceal a hidden or have a double meaning or have speculative nuances. It has this unique versatility that because when you write you also draw -such that the word for water can be brushstroked to portray water or the word for strength can be brushstroked to clearly indicate power. Thus Chinese calligraphy is in its own unique artistic universe altogether.
    But the spoken Chinese language is equally just as colourful altogether with its local or regional or diasporic vernacular, dialect, jargon, idioms, colloquiallism or slang. Live in Hong Kong or watch HK TV and you will find that colloquillism is ubiquitous in street and domestic language. In Chinese you have a distinct formal or educated language and an informal or casual street or domestic language. There are just too many to tell. But the current catchphrase is the Chinese Givernment’s war on corruption expressed in Chinese characters as ‘Fight (as in wallop) the tiger and swot the fly’ (in Chinese singular also means plural). The tiger represents the big corruption figures and the fly represents the corrupted minions.
    Let me give you a simple everyday slang – tell your Cantonese friend when he is outrageous or silly or out of kilter, that he is ‘zhee seen’ – ‘twisted thread’ (you know how when you sew and the thread gets twisted) – and that could be me!
    But it can be frustrating in a posh Chinese restaurant – when you see a dish described in written characters as ‘Buddha jumping over the wall’ or ‘Ant climbing the tree’. It is not the words or characters but the ‘imagery’!
    Weird or Mad – the Chinese! You might say.
    I know! I see my Chinese self as weird or mad when wearing my Western hat! Therefore, you are better placed than most to explain the Analects, the Tao Te Ching or Zen because you know that the Chinese language is not meant to be perfect in meaning. Like the Tao it is meant to be inscrutable. The Eastern mind is like that – in a world where it is impolite to say ‘No’, you say ‘Yes’ in a way that means no.
    To close, take the brushstroke illustration or symbol of yin and yang (two parallel black and white inverse tear drops with a minute circle of the other corresponding colour in them and a ‘dot’ representing nothing in the middle of the logo, all forming a circle) and of the Zen (a circle, but with a tail and not exactly enclosed, to suggest, no beginning of ending) – as I said a picture speaks a thousand words – all that you need to know about the Tao or Zen are in these two respective symbols. Truly!



    1. Wonderful, Vince. You gave me a lot to mull on here. I agree with everything you say. It makes me wonder if many of the great Chinese minds haven’t really been translated yet, because it takes someone earthy, spicy, and vernacular to “get” them, and who is equally so in Chinese and English to render this quality. The worst person to translate Confucius may be a scholar, just as his worst commentator is a Confucian! K


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