An Educated Man is Not a Pot 君子不器

An Educated Man is Not a Pot: On the University was edited in 2016 to commemorate Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys, d.2014), one of the Ancestors of China Heritage, and my mentor. The year 2016 marked thirty years since Pierre wrote ‘A Fable from Academe’, twenty years since his ABC Boyer Lectures, the first of which was titled ‘Learning’, and ten years since his speech ‘An Idea of a University’.

For long years I appreciated Pierre’s views of the university, but was fortunate in my position at The Australian National University to pursue with colleagues some of the ideals of an earlier era; that halcyon time continued from 2010 with the creation of the Australian Centre on China in the World. In 2015, after a long illness and in light of drastic changes at the university, I abandoned formal academia. In early 2016, I addressed a series of ‘love letters’ to an institution that first educated, then employed me. At that time during discussions with an editor and friend I conceived of this book. As all of the material in the volume, except for my introduction, ‘The Tide of Change’, is already available online elsewhere, I have decided to offer readers of China Heritage the text of that book as it was originally intended.

This work was formally launched on the 13th March 2017 when I addressed the Royal Geographical Society Hong Kong. The title of my speech was ‘To Know Heaven’s Will: China at Fifty’.

Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage

An Educated Man is Not a Pot

On the University

器 Vessel, or Pot, in the hand of Dong Qichang 董其昌
器 Vessel, or Pot, in the hand of Dong Qichang 董其昌 (1555-1636)

The Tide of Change

In “An Idea of the University” Pierre Ryckmans comments on the tension between intellectual creativity and the creep of managerialism that increasingly benighted tertiary institutions both in Australia and globally at the time he was speaking in early 2006:

Near to the end of his life, Gustave Flaubert wrote in one of his remarkable letters to his dear friend Ivan Turgenev a little phrase that could beautifully summarise my topic. “I have always tried to live in an ivory tower; but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.” These are indeed the two poles of our predicament: on one side, the need for an “ivory tower”, and on the other side, the threat of the “tide of shit”.

In a short piece written for family and friends twenty years earlier, in 1986, Pierre provided an insight into the Tide of Shit already lapping at the foundations of the Ivory Tower. His “A Fable from Academe”, a modest story about nowhere in particular, turned out to be a tale about everywhere; it has been applauded for touching on the future of hapless academics in the university.

In the fable Pierre introduces us to Hutudan (糊塗蛋, Chinese for “muddle-headed”), a specialist in Pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions. He is a scholastic everyman outmanoeuvred by an ambitious and talentless colleague. Unseated by intrigues Hutudan ends up assigned to scrub toilets. His replacement populates the Department of Pataphysics with academic nonentities. Complaints to the vice-chancellor about the parlous state of affairs are cursorily investigated and dismissed. The meek Hutudan resigns himself to toilet duty and the Tide of Shit continues its inexorable rise.

At the time he wrote “A Fable from Academe” Pierre was supervising my doctoral dissertation on Chinese art history. It was also the year that he quit The Australian National University, disaffected from that institution, and took up a senior position in Sydney. The year 1986 was a fateful one for pedagogy in Australia; it was on the eve of higher educational reforms introduced by the Labor government education minister John Dawkins. Over time these reforms would transform the underlying philosophy of university education, introduce a model of quasi-business competition between and within institutions, impose a system for measuring teaching and research summed up by crude metrics and establish a nationwide system that handed the scrubbing brush to the Hutudans of academia while empowering a growing caste of university administrators. Hailed by bien pensant reformers for economic pragmatism, for opening access to higher education to the greatest number for a practical cost, and for unseating elitism, the reforms were but part of what is globally recognised as the “neo-liberal turn” that has transformed liberal democracies into market-driven economies. The long-term effect of these changes has been to make places of higher learning and research bloated vocational institutions. “Vocational schools and technical colleges are very useful — people all understand that,” Pierre observes, but

As they cannot see the usefulness of the uselessness of universities, they have decided to turn the universities into bad imitations of technical colleges.

The Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi (third century BCE) said:

People all know the usefulness of what is useful, but they do not know the usefulness of the useless. 人皆知有用之用。而莫知無用之用也。

Pierre quoted this line to sum up the paradox between what in life may seem impractical but in essence is absolutely essential. As he wrote in the introduction to his last book, The Hall of Uselessness (2011):

After all, this sort of “uselessness” is the very ground on which rests all the essential values of our common humanity.

For over two millennia Confucius (d.479 BCE) was seen as occupying the opposite pole of Chinese thought from Zhuangzi. State Confucian thought, first developed under the Han dynasty around the time of Christ, would underpin political rule and make possible the practical application of Confucian precepts to statecraft and the maintaining of social order. Over the centuries dynastic rulers used the institutionalised version of Confucianism to select officials to govern the realm and to enforce codes of law and conduct. The Confucian state that evolved weathered centuries of dynastic change, internecine warfare, and foreign invasions, as well as surviving the rise and fall of cultural and religious fashions. Endlessly adaptable to the changing requirements of political power, this official Confucianism protected the status quo while enforcing social hierarchies and policing moral norms. It created an approach to human life and power that so stultified society that, a century ago, it became the main object of China’s extended era of revolution that lasted from the 1900s up until the 1990s. Today, some argue that a kind of reconfigured State Confucianism will eventually replace the ruling Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China, in fact if not in name.

The Confucius of The Analects, that ancient collection of sayings compiled by the Master’s disciples and later followers, however, is a far more complex and subtle figure. It is this Confucius that Pierre Ryckmans evokes in his masterful annotated translation of that book. Here Confucius is a moderate and humorous, deeply humane and cautionary figure; he is a man who dares to disagree, a guide to life and an inspiration to his fellows. In a 2009 interview the journalist Luke Slattery asked Pierre whether Confucius had anything to say on the subject of education in the contemporary context. He responded with a quotation from the Sage:

An educated man is not a pot. 君子不器。

He went on to explain:

A pot, or a tool, has only limited capacity and a narrow, specialised use. The aim of education is to enable a person to become more fully human. Western humanism had the same aim. Remember Erasmus: “One is not born a man, one becomes a man.”

A few short months after this interview Pierre addressed mourners at the Great Hall of The Australian National University gathered to commemorate Professor Liu Ts’un-yan 柳存仁 (1917-2009), former head of Chinese Studies at the university.

Professor Liu was one of last “universal scholars” of traditional China, a man with a prodigious memory and a scholarship that spanned all aspects of classical knowledge. He had invited Pierre Ryckmans to join the faculty in the early 1970s when the university was still intent on attracting some of the leading scholars and teachers in various fields of Asian Studies in keeping with its founding mission to be one of the major world centres for the in-depth understanding and study of our region.[2]

In his remarks Pierre summed up the trifold aspects of Chinese culture as exemplified by this humble yet towering scholar:

His spiritual philosophy was (I think) the product of a natural convergence: he fulfilled his social and professional duties according to Confucian ethics. He controlled his emotions and maintained inner calm through the practice of meditation and Taoist discipline. … The spirit of Buddhist compassion constantly inspired his actions. He achieved a quality of integrity, detachment and serenity that should remain an example for us all.

Decades earlier, I had gone to Canberra to study Classical Chinese and Sanskrit, and Professor Liu was my first teacher of the ancient literary language of China. At the time, the Chinese Department required students doing a three-year major in the classical language to study Modern Chinese, a practice long-since abandoned. In the conclusion to the present volume I describe the first life-transforming hour that I studied with Pierre in the late summer of 1972. Professor Liu’s introduction to the classical world of China was also unique. Our textbook was the thirteenth-century Song-dynasty children’s primer The Three-character Classic 三字經. The first lines encapsulate the philosophy of Confucianism, and are familiar to students throughout the Chinese world even today:

People at birth, 人之初。
Are by nature good. 性本善。
Their natures are similar, 性相近。
Behaviour makes them different. 習相遠。

The text also takes up the theme of the “pot” 器 (also variously translated as “vessel” or “utensil”) that features in the line “an educated man is not a pot” 君子不器:

The jade uncut will not form a vessel for use; 玉不琢,不成器。

This is followed by:

and if men do not learn, they do not know the just. 人不學,不知義。[1]

It is a Confucian version of Homo fit, non nascitur, that line from Erasmus that Pierre was fond of quoting: “One is not born a man, one becomes a man.” This is the essence of the humanist endeavour, an endeavour exemplified by Pierre Ryckmans’ scholarship, his career as a teacher and a mentor, the spirit of which is bequeathed to us in his work on literature, art, thought and culture. As John Minford, a translator and Sinologist who pursued his doctoral work on the great Chinese novel The Story of the Stone 石頭記 (also known as Dream of the Red Chamber 紅樓夢) under Professor Liu at ANU in the late 1970s, wrote of Pierre:

Simon Leys (pen-name of the Belgian-Australian Sinologist Pierre Ryckmans) has been an inspiration to a generation of students of China all over the world. His studies of contemporary China (The Chairman’s New Clothes, Broken Images, Chinese Shadows) provided a rare dissenting voice at a time when most observers failed to understand the significance of what was taking place in China. His studies of Chinese literature and art (his early thesis Les propos sur la peinture du moine Citrouille-Amère, his French version of Lu Xun’s prose poems Wild Grass, and many of the essays in The Burning Forest) have enlivened Chinese Studies more than the work of any other living scholar. What I have always found most powerful in his work has been his ability to “connect” (it is no accident that he quotes E.M. Forster at length in his Analects commentary) classical and modern, art and literature, East and West, not in a highly intellectual and theoretical fashion, but in the intuitive, imaginative style of a creative thinker and artist. He is also a painter, a novelist, a passionate yachtsman and a man of firmly held religious convictions. It has been the extraordinary good fortune of Australian students of China to have had Leys among them for the past several decades, first as one of the community of scholars who created in Canberra, in the 1970s and 80s, a world centre of Sinology, then as professor of Chinese at Sydney University until his retirement.[3]

Pierre left academia in 1996. As he remarks in an interview with Daniel Sanderson (one of my own students) he decided to quit when “education became mere training”. It was the same year that he was invited to present the annual Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Boyer Lectures. This volume contains the introduction to and first lecture in a series that was later published under the title View from the Bridge. In the first lecture Pierre notes that “…the most grotesque imagination is always overtaken by stark reality.” He left university life as he was witnessing the lengthening shadows of that stark reality.


In Chinese Shadows published under his nom de plume Simon Leys in 1974, Pierre had debunked the pious myths about Maoist China that had grown up among Western intellectuals. He was world-renowned for his devastating, and acerbic, insights. His first book on the subject, The Chairman’s New Clothes (1971), appeared as that country’s radicalised educational system, which put Red Over Expert, had reduced a culture based on learning and respect for education to the collective chanting of quotations from The Little Red Book and the study of the four volumes of The Selected Writings of Mao Zedong.

In 1966, Mao Zedong had encouraged high school and university students to rise up in rebellion. Calling themselves Red Guards they swore to advance Mao’s revolution, starting in their schools. For years there had been a simmering tension between educators derided as “specialists”, men and women with particular intellectual expertise, and their ideological overseers, the politically reliable cadres entrusted with running educational institutions by the Chinese Communist Party. The clash was summed up in a shorthand: trustworthy Red Party Cadres 紅 versus politically unreliable White Experts 專. After all, as the Great Helmsman Mao himself had said, “The learned are the most ignorant” and “The more books you read, the more reactionary you become”. In the mercurial environment of China’s revolutionary politics Red Cadres imposed shifting political priorities on White Experts. The goal was to forge a new generation of educators who were both Red and Expert 又紅又專.

How to be Red and Expert — be a Communist Laborer
How to be Red and Expert — On Becoming a Communist Worker

With the advent of the Red Guards, the tension between Red and Expert took a new turn. To eliminate the “Four Olds” — Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas — young men and women cut a violent swathe through the nation. In their wake, elders, teachers and parents were denounced, many subjected to mass abuse and physical torture; others were killed or committed suicide. Countless cultural artefacts, buildings and institutions were also laid waste. For a time, Red Guard iconoclasm knew no bounds and, ever since, whether it be the Revolutionary Guard in Iran, or the fanatics of the Taliban or Daesh today, the spectre of China’s slogan-shouting zealots comes to mind. At the time Pierre summed up the folly of heedless destruction when he commented on the demolition of the Ming-dynasty walls of Peking, torn down in an attempt to turn the ancient “feudal” city into the capital of world revolution:

A countersuperstition is not less a superstition: under the old regime town walls were venerated; under the new one they are under attack. The fury of the iconoclasts is a negative measurement of the permanence of the sacred powers that ruled feudal society. The tragedy is that the sacred powers dwell not in those innocent stones, whose beauty is sacrificed in vain, but in the minds of the wreckers. Seen in this light, the Maoist enterprise appears hopeless; the regime may well change China into a cultural desert without succeeding in exorcising the ghosts of the past: these ghosts will continue their paralyzing tyranny so long as the regime is unable to identify them within itself. But will it ever be capable of such clear vision? …

This shows, I’m afraid, how little the Maoist authorities are ready to re-examine critically the old clichés in which they have locked the concepts of “old” and “new,” “feudalism” and “progress,” “reaction” and “revolution.” By refusing to examine the nature and identity of its revolution in depth, the People’s Republic condemns itself to marking time, to struggling in the dark, producing such periodic sterile explosions as the Cultural Revolution. It can have little hope of liberating itself from the slavery of the past as long as it hunts it among old stones, instead of denouncing its active reincarnation in the ideology and political practices of the new mandarins.[4]

For the rest of Mao Zedong’s life (he died in September 1976; the Cultural Revolution barely survived his passing) Red lorded it over Expert in China’s educational system. Statistics were concocted to prove the practical benefits of correct ideology and the sagacity of putting society’s revolutionary needs ahead of mere book learning and scholarship. Among the many targets of jejune ire was Confucius. The once-venerated Sage was pilloried as China’s arch reactionary and he was relegated to the dustbin of history along with the vestiges of civility and civilisation that were part of his legacy.

It is one of the ironies of recent decades that, as China has rediscovered the value of education and reading, universities in the West have been taken over by their own ideological zealots: the Managerial Class. Academo-crats bloated on the wealth and power of the post-1986 university-as-profit centre now oversee the educational enterprise with a Stakhanovite-like obsession, ruling all in their thrall with unforgiving metrics and ever-increasing demands for higher productivity and greater status in global higher-education rankings. The White Experts, the teachers and researchers, are but employees in the service of business models imposed by a cadre of managers. China, freed for a time from Maoist ideology, now pursues a new marriage between Red and Expert.

In 2016, fifty years since Mao launched his Cultural Revolution, and four decades since his demise and the revolution’s implosion, it is chilling to consider the fate of the contemporary academic, and the students in their charge, as they labour under a totalising bureaucracy. It is an economic approach to life, and its ideology is so pervasive that it is difficult for the individual to think, let alone act, outside the categories of the all-embracing system. No essay should be written, article composed or work created that does not have as its premise a particular hypothesis, an approved methodology, a rigorous time-table or position in a career trajectory, all of which are judged by performance indicators devised to fit into the larger strategic plan of the workplace.

The old adage (from George Bernhard Shaw) holds that “He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches.” Today the university demonstrates a different maxim: “Those who teach and research try to; those who can’t manage.” All are beholden to the nomenklatura, a managerial class entrenched, enriched and emboldened by universities that long ago abandoned the educational goals that sustained great scholars like Liu Ts’un-yan or attracted the unique littérateur Pierre Ryckmans to Australia. The Audit University believes that: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” As you read An Educated Man is Not a Pot it is worth noting that most of Pierre Ryckmans’ renowned writings — essays, translations, commentaries — works that will long outlive the present regimen are, according to the metrics accountancy of modern higher learning, worth less than zero.

As Pierre noted two decades ago:

The University increasingly resembles the cardboard theatrical props that were used on the Elizabethan stage, or in Peking Opera, and on which was written in big characters: “THIS IS A CASTLE” or “THIS IS A FOREST” — it amounts to little more than a symbolic signboard: “THIS IS A UNIVERSITY”. Can such a fiction retain credibility with the public? Malcolm Muggeridge once observed that the main reason why many people previously looked at universities with a certain feeling of awe and respect was that so few of them had actual access to it. But once everybody goes to the university, they will get another view of it. This healthy awakening has been accelerating lately, and it will be complete on the day — now not very distant — when we shall see Universities of Catering, Car Driving Instruction and Quilt Making.

Climate change is real. The sea level has risen; the Tide of Shit has engulfed the Ivory Tower.

Wairarapa, New Zealand, October 2016


See the Letter of Solidarity written by those who support the free flow of knowledge, in particular academic writing.

[1] From the translation by James Legge (1815-1897), a noted Scottish missionary and Sinologist, with modification.
[2] See William Sima, China & ANU: Diplomats, adventurers, scholars, Canberra: ANU Press and Australian Centre on China in the World, 2015, downloadable at:
[3] John Minford, Master of Translation: Simon Leys’ Confucius, originally published in The Australian’s Review of Books in 1998, and reprinted with permission in The China Story Journal, 3 December 2015.
[4] Simon Leys, Ombres chinoises (1974), this quotation is from the English version, Chinese Shadows, New York: Viking Press, 1977.