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Pleasant Diversions: Literacy
Li Yu
Females find reading and writing difficult only at the point of entry. Once they have got their foot in the door, they are quicker to learn than males, because males lack concentration, while females pay undivided attention. It is best to show them across the threshold before they are initiated into sex, because once they are so initiated, their firmness of purpose suffers somewhat, and they are not as single-minded as before. The trouble is, concubines are installed at the age of fifteen or sixteen, usually, and how many of us can treat them as apprentices seeking instruction from us, instead of taking them to bed? We would never have a student all our lives if we had to wait for a virgin. The only thing is to lead them on gently and patiently, taking care not to blunt their initiative – the use of the stick as a teaching aid, as recommended in our Book of History, does not apply to female students.
A girl should be first taught to recognize characters, and only afterwards taught to write them. There is no virtue in quantity: just a few characters each day will do, teaching first those which have the fewest strokes, and which represent things near at hand. As the days and months pass, she can progress from easy to hard, and from few to many. After six months or a year, you won’t have to assign her any passages, she will know how to find things to read by herself. Before her interest in reading flags, you should look out some romances with a good plot, and some novels without obvious weaknesses, and let her leaf through them. In this way a book will not be a book, but a not-angry and not-forbidding teacher who will lead her into the inner halls of learning. Why do I say that? Because the language of romances and novels is the common talk of everyday, and when a woman reads it, it is like meeting with familiar things. For example, if in a sentence there are ten characters and she knows seven and doesn’t know three, let her read it our naturally and there will be no mistake, because she can guess the three characters she does not know from the seven characters she does know. Thus, those three characters were not taught by me, but by the roman or novel. By this means her wits are activated, and she can get the answer on her own by inference. If on top of that a man takes her well in hand and guides her progress from shallow to deep, his discourses on literacy while in bed with her will enter her mind like the timely rain, and will be infinitely easier to absorb than classroom lectures.

One or two out of ten concubines may be selected for their superior intelligence, and these you can talk to every day about poetry, and by and by, make them understand tone and metre. As long as their speech has a ring to it, and they don’t keep repeating themselves or use grating words, then they have the makings of a poet or prose-writer. The wife of Su Dongpo said, “The moon on a spring night is better than the moon on an autumn night. on an autumn night makes you feel cold and wretched, the moon on a spring night makes you feel good and glad.” This was not a poem, it was a causal remark. Yet Dongpo thought it had a good rhythm, and praised his wife for being able to make poetry. His words have since been much quoted, and go to prove what I said, that if a person’s speech has a ring to it, and has no awkward repetitions or jarring sounds, then they have the makings of a poet. The other girls may not all reach this level, but if they can get the hang of books, they will have the key to the various arts of letters in their hands, and need not fear being locked out.

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