What you know that ain’t so

Last night at my Chinese class presentation, I introduced a Chinese poem by 陆游《游山西村》


Photo taken at the 2017 Singapore Gardens by the Bay Cherry Blossoms exhibition.

Shānqióngshuǐjìn yǐ wú lù, Liǔ àn huā míng yòu yī cūn

Only to be told by the instructor that this poem had been commonly misquoted over the years. The first part of the phrase should read:

Shān chóng shuǐ fù yí wú lù


The poem means that sometimes, you may see only layers of mountains and rivers (ie face confusion and dangers, uncertainty). If you persist, soon you will see the beautiful shade of willow trees and cherry blossoms of the next village in sight.

An encouraging word to the disheartened and confused especially given the constant reminders that robots are taking away our jobs.

He went on to recite other poems we think we know, but got it half right. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. One of them which I will write about is

人不为己 天诛地灭
Rén bù wéi jǐ tiānzhūdìmiè

In this Chinese proverb, the third word “为” or wéi is pronounced in the second tone and means “self cultivation” or “self reflection” “自修”. Pronounced in the fourth tone, the same word “为”changes meaning of the phrase to “everyone for himself “.

For me and nearly everyone in the room, indeed, we have always read or heard this word read in the fourth tone. Meaning every man for himself. But the real phrase meant if everyone does not practice self reflection, you will be destroyed.

A little knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing. I have since checked on what he said and realised that he is right.

When I read Adam Smith in university as an Economics major, we were taught the invisible hand of free market forces, the evils of government intervention and the pursuit of self interest above all.

I’ve since realised that the context Smith had written about was very different from the one he had been credited with. Adam Smith was a Christian pastor and also wrote about the importance of moral justice. (I thought I first read about the misinterpretation of Adam Smith in Adam Grant’s book, “Give and Take” but cannot find my notes now.) I shall re-read what I know about Adam Smith.

Recall that was how the serpent tricked Eve. Did God really say that you cannot eat from the tree and that you will surely die?

With the threat of robots replacing me, I shall start with unlearning what I know which ain’t so. Practice the humility of Sun Tzu Art of War, which by the way is not about war. Sun Tzu recommended avoiding war at all cost.

Know yourself and your enemy

Knowing what you dont know is more useful than being brilliant. “The Tao of Charlie Munger” with commentary by David Clark

But do you really know?

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