Study Things to Acquire Knowledge
The term means to understand how we should conduct ourselves through our contact with things. “Studying things to acquire knowledge” comes from The Book of Rites. Together with “making one’s purpose sincere,” “correcting one’s thoughts,” “self-cultivation,” “running one’s family well,” “governing the state properly,” and “bringing peace to all under heaven”; they are collectively known as the “eight essential principles.” Knowledge is acquired through the study of things. Since the two are closely related, they are sometimes together called “study and acquire.” Throughout history, scholars have had varied understandings of the meaning of the term. Some emphasize a thorough inquiry of principles in contact with things. Others stress personal practice in order to master all kinds of moral conduct and skills. Still others consider their intentions as things, thus reforming their innermost thoughts as studying things.
All things have their own principles. An exhaustive inquiry into the principles means the study of things. (More Writings of the Cheng Brothers)
Gewu (格物) means setting things right, just like what is said in Mencius: A great man may rectify a ruler’s mind. (Records of Great Learning)
Study of Ancient Classics Should Meet Present Needs
Learning should contribute to good governance. Jingshi (经世) means governance of the country and society, and zhiyong (致用) refers to meeting practical needs. In the early 17th century, thinkers such as Gu Yanwu, Wang Fuzhi, Huang Zongxi, and Li Yong argued that scholarly studies should be geared to meet current needs. They held that while interpreting ancient classics, scholars should expound their views on the social and political issues of their day, solve practical problems, enhance governance of the country, improve people’s livelihood, and promote social reform. This view stressed the practical value of knowledge and the practical responsibilities of intellectuals. It reflects the pragmatic character of traditional Chinese intellectuals as well as their concern for the well-being of the people and eagerness to shoulder responsibility for the whole nation.
No articles should be written except those that are concerned with what the Six Classics teach us about the current state affairs. (Gu Yanwu: Letters to a Friend)
Scholars should value knowledge of current affairs. Memorials to the throne should be about such affairs... There should be no empty talk on abstract theories. The value of knowledge lies in dealing with practical matters. Scholars whose studies do not reveal the essence of things or put forward ways of coping with difficult situations should feel ashamed as an uneducated woman! (Li Yong: Collected Works of Li Yong)
◎ [先君] 益自奋励，自理学及经世致用书，靡不究览。（崔述《先府君行述》）
My late father was very diligent. He read a wide range of works, from NeoConfucian theories to books on dealing with practical matters. There was nothing he did not study in depth. (Cui Shu: An Account of My Late Father)