Apart from its common translation of ‘to die’, 死 sǐ also has the meaning of being inflexible and rigid. 读 dú，literal translation is ‘to read’, and 书 means book. The term 死读书 sǐ dú shū basically means read books in an inflexible, rigid way.
I brought up 死读书 in my previous post, referring it to one of the most distinguishing, and widely debated characteristics of the Chinese education system (we were forced to memorise all the compulsory reads), and deemed to acknowledge its underappreciated value.
The explanation can simply be put into 12 Chinese characters originated from Confucius,
When we were young, we don’t have enough knowledge to process our thoughts, like what 孔子 said, 思而不学则殆, you may think a lot but lack of the background knowledge to justify your thinking, and this may lead to dangerous thoughts. Therefore, in order to acquire and more importantly, to retain solid knowledge in our head, and to boost the quality of our thoughts, 死读书 seem to be a hard, but effective way.
Back in my school years, I often wonder whether memorising poems or old literatures have anything to do with real adulthood life, and like most of the ‘good kids’, I choose to do what is being told, and followed the path of 死读书. However, it’s only up till now, I gradually made sense of it.
For sure that you should always make your own judgement,and I definitely agree with the western idea of questioning about anything, everything. However, it is those times when life throws out one big question after another, I found that those years of memorising seemingly useless words are not all gone to waste, and as if our wise ancestors are now whispering in my ears that the answers to all my problems can be found, just in the back of my head.
In the old days, Chinese poems must have the same effect as modern day pop songs, something for us to relate to, and have the power to heal a soul.
On the other hand, 死读书 in the young age also helps to set a certain value and standard within oneself, the type of value that you might not even consciously aware until you saw that not everyone have it in them.
Having said all this, one must not ignore the other half of the quote, 学而不思则罔， which means that if you only acquire knowledge without processing it into your own learning, then you will still be confused. This is the real meaning of 死读书.
To sum up,a 死读书 kind of education system is not necessarily a bad one, but for a person to choose to be 死读书，that is pretty bad.