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Xinya College has always attached great efforts to establishing a corpse of liberal arts courses of high quality. But we would wonder: how did the stories between the teachers and their courses begin? What are their views of liberal arts education? What do they think of Xinyaers? With these questions in mind, a group of Xinyaers launched a series of interviews with our teachers. This article was a record of the interview with Professor Qu Jingdong, teacher of The Liberal World of Shanshui Painting.

Qu Jingdong

Professor at Department of Sociology, Peking University

Teacher of The Liberal World of Shanshui Painting at Xinya College, Tsinghua University

First encounter with Xinya College

Shang: What first brought you to Xinya College to open this course?

Qu: Professor Gan asked me for a favor! The time works for me, so I’ve decided to come.

Shang: Then why did you choose the topic "The Liberal World of Shanshui Painting"? Did Professor Gan specifically recommend this topic?

Qu: Not really. He did want me to open a course about arts, and fortunately, I happened to be doing some research on the subject at that time. I also taught this course at Peking University many years ago.

Lu: Why are you interested in Shanshui painting? I don't think this field belongs to sociology.

Qu: These two areas are not contradictory and it is natural for a person to be interested in different fields. Moreover, different fields can have close relations. Don't you think that it's nice for a person to do both good academic research and good cooking at the same time? A person who can cook has a different life experience than someone who cannot. The same is true for research - you can't limit yourself to one small area. It's not necessary to be restricted in one small field in the lifetime, right? Research in different fields can inspire each other, complement each other, and even correct each other. Talents will not isolate themselves just because they have a good mastering of one specific kind of knowledge.

Being luxurious about your passion

Shang: Some time ago, "Lipu" has published one of your interviews, in which you described your interesting student life in Fudan. Apart from what was mentioned in that article, are there any other interesting points about your college life that are still fresh in your memory?

Qu: To be honest, I don't think everything was “good” at that time. It's just that people were more comfortable or free. In my college life, I just read whatever books that I enjoyed, and I went to interact with whatever person I liked. I always believed that the most important ability of a person is to think about and study what you like, and then stick to it and keep discovering.

There are many coincidences in life when something suddenly caught you. For example, if you happened to listen to a class that intrigued you; or you met somebody; or you made a friend who changed your life trajectories. I think these coincidences are very important in life and career.

When I was in college, I liked to read books about philosophy. I originally majored in sociology, but there were not many good sociology professors then, so I had to first take a course in the philosophy, which caused me to love philosophy. Furthermore, if you love a book, you have to read it and understand it from cover to cover. I went to college in 1988 when the number of college students was very small, and the living conditions were unpleasing. Another buddy and I broke through another dormitory door, so we went to live in an empty room. Otherwise, there were 8 people in a dormitory at that time. We secretly installed light bulbs, so I could enjoy reading until 3am in the morning. I purely like reading book, even I had to skip a lot of classes.

I think the worst thing about college now is that everything you do is linked to your future. However, the so-called future is not decided by you, but by others. In my college life, although we felt that the future was vague, it was rather “free”. The college life now is very utilitarian, sadly, I think this is more terrible than being reckless for money.

Lu: So, what should the college students do now?

Qu: If you have your own world, you can give yourself a little “freedom”. You have asked me why I chose to teach this course of “Shanshui painting” - I just liked it, and no other reasons. You have asked me why I still wanted to do Shanshui painting that seemingly is disconnected with my career? My answer is that I just purely loved it, so I will go for these paintings whenever there is an exhibition, and I will purchase as many relevant books as possible. Also, I don't think that paintings are connected with sociology, why do I have to do research on sociology all the time?

Lu: But it all looks time-consuming and “luxurious”.

Qu: What's wrong with that? Being luxurious about your passion is such a good virtue! Now, food and clothing are in surplus, but spirituals are in deficit. At my time, the most painful thing in winter included two things, going to sleep at night and going out in the morning. As soon as the temperature hit below zero, it was extremely cold, there was no heating, the windows were single-layered glass, and frostbite often occurred on hands and feet. The bed was like an ice cellar. When I went in, I warmed it with all my body temperature overnight, and I had to leave that warm bed the next morning! Furthermore, the previous generation went to do labor in the mountains, where life was even more difficult, but we didn't feel anxious or helpless, and we've never heard of anyone being under depression.

Now that the material conditions are good, but you still feel that there something is wrong, right? In order to lead a more free and vigorous life, you have to leave something out – there is no satisfying of both sides. If you truly loved knowledge of some field, you would maintain a positive state of mental and physical health, and you would not be lazy, especially your brain would not feel tired. However we have witnessed is that many students did very well acdemically, but their mental health still suffers.

Let’s face it. It's actually useless for me to say these things, let's put these words out for everyone to read, I guess they might say, "Haha, this teacher has spoken something interesting and trustworthy", and then probably will still keep the original lifestyle as usual.

The purpose of studying is not to increase one's own income, not to establish yourself in the society and not to win in the competition, otherwise you will end up like those corrupt officials who gather money every day and never have the chance to spend a single cent.

Passion takes courage and trade-off

Shang: You once said in class that life's greatest coincidences and discoveries could happen in an instant. But is it possible that I would never encounter these coincidences and fail to come across the things I love?

Qu: No! The reason why people have doubts is because they don't have the courage to pursue them, so they have questions whether they really love them and have the ability to love them. For example, you fall in love with a girl, but you have been pondering: “how do I say the first words to her? How can I date her? Do I want to meet her on purpose after class? When I give her a gift, will she accept it? What if she doesn't accept it?” What a shame! When you've started to doubt like this, there's not much chance left. College students tend to think too much! Thinking too much is weakening your courage and capacity. Of course, if you miss this opportunity, you will immediately provide yourself with a satisfactory “excuse” - Indeed, I don't love her that much.

Lu: You think it takes courage to have passion.

Qu: Passion takes courage, and also “trade-offs”. Courage itself also contains trade-offs - to give up caution about yourself and then to gain the real discovery of yourself.

Shang: Professor Gan also said something similar last year, saying that when we fall in love, it is not doing mathematics - making plans with the methodologies of science and engineering.

Qu: Of course! If I fall in love that girl, I want to be with her, right? I want to be with her in self-study, want to talk to her, chat with her, nobody can stop you! If she really doesn't like you back, you'll get that as soon as she felt bothered by you, but at least you tried it, right?

Being passionate about a subject is the same thing as being passionate about some person. At first, you find it exciting. When you need to pay for this thing, you start to think – what if I pay too much here, what else then? If people all think like this all the time, what achievements can they make?

Liberal arts education: face challenges from the past and future

Qu: We have been discussing liberal arts education for around 20 year. Liberal arts education definitely needs to be advocated, but if liberal arts education is translated into taking various courses, more credits and GPA ranking, liberal arts education will go on to the opposite of its initial purposes.

First, what I mean is that it is not necessary to distinguish between professional education, liberal arts education, or any other types of education. In the end, everyone still cares about GPA, ranking, credits, then what difference does it make? What I care more about is what students gain out of the education rather than the specific courses.

Second, general education claims that you need to read classis, but what's the use of knowing a lot of “big words”? A person's true knowledge, discipline, and cultivation are all revealed by general behaviors. You've read a lot about Plato for the purpose of getting higher grades in a course. Have you really understood it yet? Maybe know a lot about Plato, but for what purpose?

The goal of education is to provide you with the ability to face challenges from the future and the past as “comprehensive” human beings, which is also the ability that all human beings should share. Human’s knowledge has been extracted and accumulated from past experiences, as people have always been digesting and absorbing wisdom from the past, in order to be shoulder the challenges from the future. Given that people are growing as well as the future is changing, there are always many more unpredictable factors, right? As a result, we cannot predict the future. But fortunately, what we can do is absorbing knowledge and accumulating abilities that people have gathered from the past, in order to better face the unpredictable future steadily and firmly. And that is what liberal arts education aims to cultivate. The people who receive liberal arts education should have a very good experience of life and boldly face challenges from the past and the future.

Shang: Liberal arts education enables us to acquire an ability to live a better life.

Qu: Of course! Of course, but there are more beyond that. People who receive liberal arts education may serve more people and bring benefits to more people, which should be the purpose of education.

When people are criticizing professional education with general education, they will porbably mention that people will become too narrow and bounded by their majors. However, perhaps the most fundamental difference is not what students have already learned, but what students choose to have learned. For a comprehensive human being, the ultimate ability is naturally generated rather than indoctrinated.

Let me give you two negative examples. When you are read “The Analects” and have memorized it perfectly, even the collation and annotations. However, when you are encountering something trivial in your life, you ponder it over and over. Does it mean that you have really read and understood “The Analects”? You took the Shanshui painting class, and you worked very hard to get high marks in your homework. However, when you go to a place to observe a painting, which is a very mediocre piece, but you claim it's so beautiful. This is another demonstration of what you have learned in class hasn’t translated into your ability.

Weave a different world, discover a different form of beauty

Shang: What do you hope that students will learn from this course? Is it possible that when we see an art exhibition or a painting in the future, we can tell whether it is good or not, beautiful or not?

Qu: This class is not to teach you how to paint, and I don't have the ability to teach students to paint. What I want to cultivate in my course is that - in the face of the real world, you must take the initiative to open up a different world of your own. People all make dreams, and even get addicted to them; sometimes, they will be living in an imaginary natural world where people find it astoundingly beautiful.

Why do people dream even if they know that it is not real? What constitutes our lives is not just the real world, but also an imaginary world in which you can slowly weave and build by yourself as you wish! A good pianist will use his music to capture people’s minds to make them feel like in a different world.

When we want to see a landscape painting, sometimes I feel that the world is completely different. One of the greatest abilities of human beings lies in this - that he can construct an imaginary world from the ordinary real world.

No matter how much professional knowledge you learn, you are still living in the real world, and that is no problem; but people are not only living in the real world, people have another world to construct, and the two worlds are closely interconnected. It is not surprising that many of your inspirations often originate from the other world. I think it's a very important ability for people.

Sadly, almost all of our education now touches very little of these, and thus provides no comfort and inspiration.

In the class where Professor Li Mu and Professor Tian ye teach students to paint, students must feel that this class is not for them to become painters, nor for them to become experts in the area of painting. Then what is the purpose? As Professor Li Mu said, it is in human nature that when a person encounters something unfamiliar, he would immediately withdraw! Our students have always felt that painting is extremely difficult, as they felt that what came out under their hands would be extremely ugly.

As I have stated above, liberal arts education would tell you how to deal with the fact that ugly things keep coming out of your hands. This is something completely beyond your control. It is impossible to hope that life is always running on the track of smooth sailing that you can get into Tsinghua University when going for the college entrance exams.

In my course, students are exposed to an unknown field, a completely unfamiliar field. I would challenge the students whether they can face it bravely, stretch out their hand bravely, and describe the things they like, right?

Shang: Then, in your fake world ...

Qu: It's not fake! In art, this is way truer, and as Buddhism claims, our real world may be falser.

Shang: Yes, if you were to become a calligrapher and painter in the other world, who would you like to be?

Qu: Myself. I have already become a painter in this world, why do I still need to imitate others!

Shang: Who do you admire the most?

Qu: I have actually admired many different people and that's the real appreciation. This question is the same as asking – if you have many friends in your life, who is your best friend? Although I can give you an affirmative answer, but if you only communicate with the only best friend in your life, you are actually a very lonely person, aren't you?

Shang: Haha.

Qu: Isn't it?

Shang: Yes, indeed.

Qu: You are indeed very close to that friend. But on the contrary, if you have all kinds of friends with different temperaments, talents, abilities, you can learn a lot from them. You can chat and talk about different things and also can get a lot of life experience here and there, which applies also to reading books.

So, if you ask me who I like the most, I can definitely provide an answer, but I think the fundamental answer should be “drawing strengths from all of my friends”. The most important thing is that you see what is good in a person, and that requires eyesight. Even if you make friends, you might not really know what his or her characteristics are, what their biggest strengths are, right? So, I've always felt that life is all about dealing with people. When you are reading different books, you can fell the different forms of beauty. The more and deeper you read, the more likely it will blend into you.

Shang: It feels like we are not just chatting today, and I have also received a lecture from you.

Qu: No, please don’t. Lecturing would be really boring!

Regards to students

Shang: Professor Qu, do you have any regards for our students in Xinya College?

Qu: I have only been teaching here for three or four months and I will leave afterwards. I don't know that much about students in Xinya college so I can't say anything yet.

Lu: All students are very interested in your course.

Qu: The advantage of elective courses is that students choose my course based on pure interest. I think that I have no lack of eye contacts with my students at the courses, which is more than enough.

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