Such are the guidelines for students

For the end of the semester, Guanzi on Duties of the Student from the Rickett translation

The teacher presents his teachings; students take them as standards for their behavior.
By being docile and reverential and keeping their minds completely open, their learning is maximized
On seeing goodness, they follow it; on hearing of righteousness, they submit to it.
Docile and compliant, filial and respectful toward their elders, they never display arrogance nor resort to physical force
Never false nor depraved in purpose, their conduct is certain to be correct and straightforward.
Observing constant standards whether abroad or at home, they are certain to seek out those who are virtuous.
Their features being well composed, their inner thoughts are certain to be exemplary in their correctness.
Though they awaken early and go to bed late, their dress is certain to be tidy
Mornings being devoted to enhancing their learning and evenings to practicing what they have learned, they are ever cautious of doing anything wrong
Being ever diligent in concentrating on these things—such are the standards for study

Nothing terribly new here. Students are docile and reverential, their minds are open, their appearance is neat and tidy. A standard
picture of the start of the semester be it today or during the Warring States. The text gets more interesting as it goes into the rituals of learning, especially the rituals of how students serve their teachers.

At mealtimes, when the teacher is about to eat, a student prepares food for him.
Having pulled up his sleeves, washed his hands, and rinsed his mouth, the server then kneels down to present the food.
When the sauces, grain, and various dishes are set forth, it must be
done in an orderly fashion.
Vegetable stews are served before dishes of fowl, meat, fish, or turtle. Both the stews and sliced meat dishes are placed in the middle but kept separate.
Meat dishes having been placed in front of the sauces, the entire setting forms a square. The grain is served last; on the left is the wine, on the right is water.
Having reported that everything is ready, the student withdraws and, cupping his hands before him in obeisance, stands to one side.
[The normal meal consists of] three servings of grain to which soup is added twice,
The student holds in his left hand a pottery serving dish, in his right chopsticks or a ladle.
He refills the various dishes in order as soon as he sees they are becoming empty. If two dishes become empty at the same time, he refills them in the order they were originally served.
Having refilled all the dishes, he begins the cycle again.
Since his serving implement has a foot-long handle, he does not need to kneel—such are the guidelines for making refills.

This tradition has basically died out, students no longer serve meals to their teachers. The whole text reflects a very different level of intimacy between students and teachers than we have today, and a different purpose to education, which was in this context more about moral training than about filling their heads with knowledge and skills.

More interesting to me is the ritual presentation of the food, which is matched by equally detailed descriptions of how to sweep a floor. I’m sure if the teacher had been in the mood he could have explained the ritual importance of serving food in the proper order, and how a proper ritual creates the proper relationship between teacher and student. Of course many students would not have grasped this at first, and would have been forced through the ritual over and over again without understanding it. Most teachers would probably regard that as o.k. Just going through the ritual does you good. The modern historian’s comparison is probably footnotes. A thing full of meaning for us, but no matter how often we explain it they tend to see it as a pointless bit of ritual. Of course it can sometimes seem a pointless bit of ritual to the teacher as well, (who has not though their students were going through the motions) but still they are convinced that ritual practice will have some effect.

When the teacher is about to retire, the students all stand. They respectfully present him with his pillow and mat and ask him where he would like to place his feet. The first time they arrange his sleeping mat, they request this information, but once the pattern has been established, they do not.

Another dead ritual, as students no longer tuck their teachers into bed. Although a fair number of students think, like the author of this text, that teachers do not exist outside of the context of teaching. I am always amazed by the number of students who seem to think I lie motionless in a coffin through the break until students appear again and I re-animate. Actually, I have a life of my own and spend most of the break acting like a normal human.

After the teacher has retired, each student seeks out his friends,
Dissecting and polishing,
Each one strengthens his arguments.
The day’s routine having been completed, the next day it begins
anew. Such are the guidelines for students.

And so the semester ends, and students go off to contemplate and perfect what they have learned.


  1. Is there any evidence that this was practised to the word in this text? How many students did each teacher have? Was this the norm at say from village levels all the way to the imperial family? Wealthy families took live-in private tutors, did these wealthy brats really ‘served’ their teachers as in the text? Or was this just wishful thinking on behalf of the teaching profession (which some teachers around the world may still fantasize about even now)?

  2. This was actually a pretty influential text. The Book of Rites has about the same text, according to Rickett, and from whatever source it seems to have had a lot of influence on later rules about schools (Zhuxi’s in particular.) How well any of these rules were followed is of course hard to know. Note that the students are commended for not offering violence to their teachers, so presumably the actual behavior of students was a bit less ideal than one might have hoped. I would not really call this wishful thinking, however. It laid out a set of ritual behaviors that were supposed to lead teachers and students into a proper relationship.

  3. ‘According to Rickett’

    I do not agree with Rickett’s translation. The Chinese verbs in the passage quoted here have mostly been translated into the English present tense. I should think any serious scholar of Chinese would realise that this showed Rickett failed to capture the mood of the verbs in Chinese.

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