the dregs of the sages

Of all of my classes, “Guided Readings in the Laozi and Zhuangzi” has to be my favourite. Part of it is that it’s just plain cool to be reading texts that are more than two thousand years older than I am, and part of it is that, following 2300 years’ tradition of commentators and religious wackos, I can find stuff in there to justify whatever I want.

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Consider Zhuangzi’s exhortation at the beginning of Chapter 3, “On Preserving Life.” (My translation; any errors are my fault and not my professor’s.)

吾生也有涯, 而知也无涯。以有涯随无涯, 殆已! 已而为知者,殆而已矣!


One’s life has limits, but knowledge is limitless. To use that which is limited to pursue that which is limitless — dangerous! To know this, and pursue knowledge anyway — O, dangerous!

In goodness, seek not fame,
In evil, seek not shame,
In all things, keep to the middle course
Thus may you protect yourself,
Thus may you maintain your health,
Thus save your family from strife,
Thus live out your allotted life.

I think Zhuangzi is telling me to drop out.
And then there’s the Laozi, Chapter 19 – some editions put it in Chapter 20 – where it says to “绝学无忧,” ‘renounce learning and be without worry.’

I think that may be the easiest course.

It’s like this: my options are either to go back to the States after this semester, and spend a year or more getting my BA – during which time I’ll be able to pick up another major, but unable to do much, if anything, with my Chinese – or transfer to Beida, (most likely) start over, and come out with really good Chinese and a degree that will be pretty much worthless if I decide at some point down the line that I don’t really want to be a sinologist after all.

I just don’t want to be halfassed about this.

Comments (21)

  1. chriswaugh_bj wrote::

    “I just don’t want to be halfassed about this”.


    For what it’s worth, I did a BA in French. Now I’m in China teaching English. My advice is follow your heart. A halfassed life ain’t worth the effort.

    Monday, March 29, 2004 at 9:20 am #
  2. Alaric wrote::

    Hey Brendan! Whatever you do, there probably isn’t a right or wrong answer. And you can always change your mind later. I agree with the “follow your heart” thing.

    Monday, March 29, 2004 at 11:01 am #
  3. Brendan wrote::

    Them’s fightin’ words, John…

    Tuesday, March 30, 2004 at 1:00 am #
  4. John B wrote::

    “Part of it is that it’s just plain cool to be reading texts that are more than a thousand times older than I am”

    So you’re, what? 2 1/2, pushing 3 now? :)

    Tuesday, March 30, 2004 at 6:47 am #
  5. Brendan wrote::

    Yeah, my little brother sent me an email about that, as did my mother. Curse your eagle eyes!

    I’m a humanities major for a reason, OK?

    Tuesday, March 30, 2004 at 12:34 pm #
  6. John wrote::

    In case you don’t want to be a sinologist after all?

    Come on, Brendan. How likely is that, really? I can’t think of anyone more likely to become a sinologist than you.

    Tuesday, March 30, 2004 at 12:50 pm #
  7. wayne wrote::

    Get the BA.

    If you want to become a serious sinologist, you’ll probably need a Ph.D from an international university. That’s the question you should be asking yourself, whether you want to go for the Ph.D or not. And don’t worry about not being able to spend time in China: many Ph.D candidates spend at least a couple of years doing field research in China. Personally, I couldn’t bear the thought of spending that much more time in school, but as Adam said, if you aren’t the sinologist type, then I don’t know who is.

    But the B.A. is absolutely essential. There is absolutely no reason not to get it unless you are absolutely financially constrained.

    Wednesday, March 31, 2004 at 7:24 am #
  8. donny wrote::

    i’d say go for beida. degrees are worthless everywhere. i have the stanford name but little else after a $120,000 education. i think the most important things u get from college are the networks you’ll need later in life, and since you’re probably going to do something with your chinese language skills, it wouldn’t hurt to connect with the best and brightest humanities majors in china.

    lesse, what else… people will also be impressed that your language skills were so good that you were able to graduate from a foreign university, as opposed to just being there for a semester or two. it’ll show serious commitment, and basically you’ll attain the level of “serious kickass chinese expert” and have your pick of china-related jobs in america. and to be blunt, temple isn’t going to rock any employer’s world over here. so yeah, better to pick up a serious skill than to go for a worthless piece of paper with the name of an obscure american university printed on it. when people give interviews, they don’t ask to see your school’s accreditation. they just wanna see the name on the resume. and beijing university sounds so much loftier than temple.

    wow, i didn’t mean for that to sound so snobby. oops. hope no offense given. but yeah, if and only if you’re sure you’re going to pursue something besides chinese, i’d say return to temple. otherwise, stick to ur guns.

    Wednesday, March 31, 2004 at 7:32 am #
  9. Adam wrote::

    honestly, you know you want it. You want it bad. You’re willing to go the distance, do watever it takes in order to say, in a completely unqualified manner, that you know Chinese, that you understand China, it’s history, it’s culture, it’s people, etc. If you think you can further this goal by going back to Philly, then go for it. As for whether a degree from Beida is worthless or not, the fact that you, as a young foreigner, will have obtained a degree from a highly regarded Chinese university would be a testament to the high level of scholarship and erudition that you are capable of. Regardless of what you want to do in life, either in China or in Academia or in business or whatever, you can justifiably say that staying at BeiDa will help, not hinder your goals, there is nothing half-assed about it.

    Wednesday, March 31, 2004 at 10:55 am #
  10. Prince Roy wrote::

    I say go with Beida. I wish I had stayed to get my master’s there. If you do decide to be a sinologist, you’ll get into any Western grad school; if you wnt to do something else, Beida is well enough known that it won’t hinder you, and the novelty of it may even help. But why do you need to start over? Can’t you transfer any credits from your US university?

    Thursday, April 1, 2004 at 3:20 am #
  11. Tim wrote::


    Neither decision would be wrong. Which one you choose will effect what path you take through life, but both would be interesting paths. Go with your gut.

    Clearly, writing in English is also one of your loves, so put that in the mix too.


    Friday, April 2, 2004 at 6:05 am #
  12. peter wrote::

    Well, i don’t think he’s telling you to drop out, that’s for sure. The whole message is about purity in purpose and pursuit, right? So you have to evaluate that in regards to your being a Sinologist.

    Being 10 weeks away from a degree i actually loved getting, i still see things i missed out on during the course of my studies. You have definitely avoided doing any missing out — you’ve already had the chance to live abroad on your own, which is more than a lot of people can say for themselves. Would staying there really be “the middle course,” concerned with the limited nature of life rather than chasing the limitless depth of knowledge. Or, alternately, could you be happy with a pursuing the knowledge that comes with a different end degree, even if your study of Chinese isn’t reflected in it?

    As an aside from living your life via Zhuangzi’s exhortations, the time factor in your equation seems like the biggest deal to me. What kind of time commitment does “transfer to Beida, (most likely) start over” actually consist of? Three years? Four? On the other hand, can you realistically finish a US degree in under two years? Is that financially feasible? And, finally, could you still get into the kind of Graduate work you want to do with a non-Chinese BA from a stateside school? I don’t know if this is necessarily true of Grad language-based programs, but in general as much Grad school Admissions cares about your BA, they care more about your qualifying experiences.

    As nice as it would be to have you in the continental states again to guide me through menus in ChinaTown, i’d hate to think of you as feeling stuck here doing something that isn’t your primary interest. In a way that’s why you left in the first place, right?

    Sorry, i guess that didn’t help at all, i’m just in a contemplative mood with graduation drawing near. Also, I can’t seem to find your email on the site and needed to ask you something. Could you drop me a line when you read this?

    Friday, April 2, 2004 at 7:36 am #
  13. kongzi wrote::

    Get the B.A., then return and get another B.A. from Beida. Patience and prudence are underrated by the young!

    Saturday, April 3, 2004 at 12:16 pm #
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    Tuesday, April 13, 2004 at 4:38 am #
  15. Brendan wrote::

    Roy – this is a bit late, and not a definite answer to your question, but — no; from what I’ve been told by the people in the Long-Term Programs Office at Beida, my credits from Temple would not transfer.

    Thursday, April 22, 2004 at 2:13 am #
  16. lils wrote::

    1. what exactly is a sinologist? like someone who’s downass chinese, so “tu” that they flake… but isn’t quite chinese…?
    2. another irrelevant comment: we met with the ballaz from Bank of China last week, and I managed to make some money from it. how?
    I bet that at least one of them would wear an expensive suit with the tag purposely left on the cuff. haha… booya! surprisingly, that bet got me more accolade on my “sinophilologyness” than my staying up until 5 freakin’ am for two weeks working on materials for the meeting.
    3. have you noticed that every middle-aged, literate person who’s been through the cultural revolution has read Balzac? I met this dude, Papa Zhang, we called him, on my trip to JiuZhaiGou (think rickety mianbao van with lots of b.o. and me with two white boys from TX… there was no escaping that i was their whore, the entire bus decided, anyways…). He was from shandong and was a factor worker. but he friggin’ quoted Cousin Bette like a CuiJian song (CuiJian was in NY recently… ).
    You should read Balzac. It’s very impressive stuff, although Nabokov is still the babydaddy.

    hope you’re well. holla

    Saturday, April 24, 2004 at 7:04 am #
  17. Tim wrote::

    What are you doing in Berkeley? I just saw your name on a conference I am attending in Berkeley on China’s Digital future. Are you here in person, or just virtually? If in person, give me an email or call me (just google my name and berkeley).

    Saturday, May 1, 2004 at 5:09 am #
  18. deb stern wrote::

    When the hell are you going to start really writing again?
    Your father was just here & I bitched to him….he said to tell you.
    We have some good pics of your old man on Bob’s bike (the only person in AZ wearing tweed on a motorcycle had be to be him).

    Sunday, May 2, 2004 at 9:17 am #
  19. Patrick wrote::

    I want you to know that it wasn’t “tweed.” It was a tasteful Oscar De La Renta sportsjacket, with matching cuffed pants with a fine crease. Seriously disturbed the hairy bikers coming out of the truck stop. You could read their minds:
    (1) There goes the neighborhood. Or (2) Don’t mess with the skinny dude in the weird outfit. It was the best send-off to an airport I’ve ever had.

    And yeah, when the hell *are* you going to write something on this page–this post is too dead to skin.

    Monday, May 3, 2004 at 9:45 am #
  20. 盲虫寒异 wrote::

    I’m trying to catch up your archives(Sorry). I wanted to say, There is always a wrong answer. Perhaps, this is another explaination for 有涯随无涯.

    知已知彼, 百战不殆.
    知限知涯, 量力而来.

    :-)) )

    Sunday, May 9, 2004 at 8:03 am #
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