While I was in high school, my language teacher would give writing assignments and I had some difficulty in deciphering her intent.
When she wanted exposition, I would narrate; when she asked for narration, I would turn in comments. Fortunately, there are only so many forms of school essays.
Once, her topic was "On Something". She outlined the structure and wanted famous quotes to embellish our arguments. It went smoothly. I quoted everybody whose maxims I could recall, from Marx to Maradona. I felt the sparks of my literary genius flying.
I was waiting for commendation, but my piece barely got passing grade.
She singled out all the quotes I had used, leaving only 400 of a 1,000-word article. She had saved my face by not letting me fail.
That was a heavy blow. For a long time, I did not dare quote anybody, or simply dare not write. Whenever I heard a topic, such as "knowledge" or "reading", I couldn't help thinking of what famous people in history had said about them.
These adages were posted on classroom walls, and printed in calendars and notebooks. And there are volumes of quotations that you can cram into memory. Whenever I put pen to paper, these words would pop up in my mind.
They decorate the facade of one's writing. Well used, they make reading agreeable; otherwise, they become stumbling blocks.
I began to understand why my teacher had cleansed me of my quoting craze.
But one day, she told me: "You could be a journalist in the future." The old lady must be pulling my leg. Maybe it was just a rub to soften her multiple slaps. But it turned out to be an accurate prediction.
She had taught me a lesson in using quotations. From then on, whatever I want to say, I'll say it in my own words.
Maybe I'll blurt out a few aphorisms of my own.
I came to discover that the so-called famous sayings are just sayings by famous people. There are better utterances from ordinary people. Lately, I saw the writings of the young scholar Xu Zhiyuan. How can I be so ignorant?
See how profusely he is quoting? The words he quotes could not be Googled; the names he quotes may not have records in a big tome of biographical dictionary... Reading him, I realized I was just a toad trapped at the bottom of a well.
A few days ago, I flipped channels and stumbled upon Professor Yu Dan, the television equivalent of Sister Hibiscus. What an eloquent speaker! She could talk for five or six minutes without any oratory hiccup.
Her speech, with the exception of the subject, was completely made up of quotes from classic poetry.
I was dumbfounded.
I felt she must have an embedded Google in her head, and its searching speech would make Bill Gates green with envy. If Professor Yu had invented a computer chip, it would surely catapult China past the US in high tech.
Imagine Xu Zhiyuan and Yu Dan in a room and they are not allowed to quote.
What will they ever write about?
(China Daily 03/20/2007 page20)