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What I hear I forget, what I see I remember, what I do I understand.

Posted by Kim Bennett on September 12, 2007

"What I hear I forget, what I see I remember, what I do I understand."

Numerous Chinese websites attribute this phrase NOT to Confucius, as many English sites seem to list, but from Xunzi (340-245 BC), one of the three greatest Confucian scholars of early years. The sentence said to be the root of the phrase in question appears in his important work "Ru2 Xiao4 Pian1--literally translated Confucian Devotional Writing) and reads:
《儒效篇》荀子曰:

"不闻不若闻之,闻之不若见之,见之不若知之,知之不若行之;学至于行之而止矣。"

In my opinion however, either the English phrase has a different origin than Xunzi (everyone on my present left side of the Pacific would disagree) or else there's been a pretty liberal translation applied to get us the English quote "What I hear I forget, what I see I remember, what I do I understand." That is, the Chinese sentence above literally translates to "Not hearing is not as good as hearing, hearing is not as good as seeing, seeing is not as good as mentally knowing, mentally knowing is not as good as acting; true learning continues up to the point that action comes forth (or, only when a thing produces action can it be said to have been truly learned)."

Being involved in translation every day, I'm painfully aware that there is always more than one way (or ten ways) to translate an involved passage, but the concise English quip gives a rather different dynamic from Xunzi's words, even if in the end it does emphasize the importance of doing.