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An unlikely man of letters

By Wang Qian and Yang Jun | China Daily| Updated: 2020-11-19 Print

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Cai Wei teaches three courses-ancient-Chinese writing, paleography and calligraphy-at Anshun University in Guizhou province. The former street peddler made national headlines in 2009, when he was accepted into a PhD program of Fudan University in Shanghai for his expertise in ancient Chinese literature. [Photo by Wang Jingshuo/China Daily]

Cai Wei's childhood fascination with ancient Chinese characters has taken him a long way.

The 48-year-old scholar, who was born to a modest family in Jinzhou, Liaoning province, teaches three courses-ancient-Chinese writing, paleography and calligraphy-at Anshun University in Guizhou province.

He made national headlines in 2009, when he was accepted into a PhD program at the Center for Research on Chinese Excavated Classics and Paleography of Fudan University in Shanghai for his expertise in ancient Chinese literature, although he failed his college entrance exam years ago.

"It's unique to go directly from high school graduate to doctoral student," he says.

He graduated from Fudan University in 2015 and became a teacher at Anshun University. His students often remind Cai of younger versions of himself.

He has never told them about his days as a street peddler. He then used every break to read ancient classics, including works by Laozi, Zhuangzi and Han Feizi. He still remembers that he had to sell at least 50 popsicles to buy a secondhand book for 5 yuan (76 US cents).

Cai now spends most of his time in his office, indulging in ancient texts and trying to interpret the exact meanings of obscure scripts.

The field he's researching is xiaoxue, which is the general description of the philology, phonology and exegesis of the ancient Chinese language.

He has published about 10 papers, and his book was published last year.

"If there is no academic significance, there is no need to write a paper. A good essay should solve a problem at least," Cai says.

He has gone viral on the microblogging platform Sina Weibo. Many netizens find his story inspirational and say his story proves the idiom, "Knowledge is power."

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