A Farmer Learns his Chinese Characters

I haven’t been making any substantial posts to Frog in a Well of late even though I have been buried in fascinating historical materials as I write my dissertation. I have decided, however, to share the occasional short anecdote that pops up in some of the secondary and primary sources I come across.

If you have studied Chinese you may know how hard it is to maintain memory of those characters. I remember being impressed with a friend who attached little labels on everything around the house to help his girlfriend learn German vocabulary. Looks like this is a method with a lot of history behind it. In a section talking about literacy in Communist controlled areas of wartime China, Dagfinn Gatu brings up a patronizing anecdote from Jack Belden’s China Shakes the World I don’t remember coming across describing one way to remember the Chinese characters:

“A farmer plowing his field would put up one character on a big board at each end of the field. Thus, going back and forth all day, even his primitive mind could grasp the complex convolutions.”1

  1. Quoted in Dagfinn Gatu, Village China at War, p. 77. Originally in Jack Belden, China Shakes the World, p. 117.  

1 Comment

  1. I’ve heard versions of this before, usually unsourced, about peasants who learned the classics while plowing near the Confucian school and listening to the lessons or whatever. Usually they then pass the exams and become high officials. It makes a nice story, since the hero can go right from honest peasant to upright official without having to make a bunch of money or move to the city or whatever. No doubt that’s why these sorts of stories circulated.

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