"A Life of Freedom" | Pursuit of Novelty and Rigor

Recently, I finished reading Ji Xianlin's "A Life of Freedom," a collection of essays that explores various topics and his own experiences.

In terms of the topics, they were written in a superficial manner without any particular viewpoints. They didn't leave a deep impression on me and didn't provide much inspiration. However, his experience studying in Germany did captivate me.

He wrote about several insights he gained while studying in Germany1. One of them was the importance of choosing a new topic for his thesis. German professors emphasized the need for a topic to be "new." They didn't mind if the topic was small, but they despised papers that were put together haphazardly, considering them a waste of paper and the reader's energy.

He once wrote a lengthy introduction, thinking that he would receive praise for it. However, the professor rejected it completely, forcing him to start over. This serves as an example.

Another insight he gained was the meticulousness of Germans. While writing his thesis, he spent two to three years going back and forth to the library, referencing numerous publications. When it came time to complete his thesis, he was told to meticulously verify every citation to ensure accurate attribution. He was troubled by this because it meant he had to spend a significant amount of effort to borrow those books again and clearly mark the sources of his citations. However, he ultimately complied with the requirements.

When publishing a book in Germany, everyone in the research lab had to participate in proofreading to ensure the rigor of the book.

He jokingly referred to this behavior of Germans as:

Germans are capable of great intelligence, but also of great foolishness.

It is precisely this "foolish" behavior that has cultivated Germany's rigorous style and made German manufacturing renowned worldwide.

This experience left a deep impression on me, mainly because I have also gone through a similar stage. The requirements for theses in Chinese universities, compared to the requirements described by Ji Xianlin, are significantly different, which greatly impacted me.

Although my university is not considered top-tier, it is still a good university in China. Yet, plagiarism, substitution, and the continuation of previous themes are rampant, lacking any originality. I can't even imagine what it's like in lower-ranked universities.

When I look back at my own thesis, I feel ashamed—I have added more garbage to the world.

The topics lack originality and certainly cannot be considered rigorous.

During the later stages of the defense, a significant amount of effort was spent on formatting and correcting the layout. I was surprised by this operation because the amount of effort put into the surface appearance was even greater than the effort put into research. During the questioning, many committee members also focused on the formatting...

The formation of this atmosphere is closely related to the overall environment.

Universities emphasize leniency in admissions and strictness in graduation, so they won't make things difficult for graduating students, and therefore, the requirements for theses won't be too high. Students naturally understand these "loosening" operations, so they won't pay too much attention to their theses. This understanding is passed down to the next batch of students, and the cycle continues.

I am fortunate to have escaped from this situation, but I still feel saddened by this kind of atmosphere. Especially when I read about his experiences, I admire the German culture and rigor, and what astonishes me even more is that—

The Germany described in the book is almost a century old.


  1. From Chapter 1 of "A Life of Freedom."

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