Veteran teacher covets words of wisdom

Published: 23/05/2009 05:00



His family think he’s obsessed, but for Nguyen Huy Gioi, collecting proverbs is his life. Mai Hang finds out why the former head teacher thinks words of wisdom are worth more than money.

His family think he’s obsessed, but for Nguyen Huy Gioi, collecting proverbs is his life. Mai Hang finds out why the former head teacher thinks words of wisdom are worth more than money.

If Nguyen Huy Gioi lets one day pass by without learning anything, he considers the day wasted.

The retired teacher has dedicated his life to collecting words of wisdom. In his opinion, his most valuable possession is his eruditeness. At the age of 70, Gioi has collected over 4,000 proverbs and apothegms.

Gioi has already published two books on words of wisdom published by Lao Dong – Xa Hoi (Labour – Society) and Ha Nam Provincial Literature and Arts Association Publishing Houses.

“I love hearing new sayings from politicians and celebrities, from ancient to modern times. It’s wonderful when a great idea can be transferred through a short sentence,” he says.

“It pleases me to think about the deep thoughts and meanings of each saying,” he says. “The more proverbs I read, the more moral lessons I learn.”

Gioi doesn’t collect all the proverbs he hears, he takes notes selectively.

“I chalk out a plan for collecting the proverbs,” he says.

Every year, he gathers hundreds of proverbs from different genres: culture, morality, love, education and health. Then he arranges the fruits of his labour in different directories.

“I have found numerous proverbs but I want to select ones which are close to the language of ordinary life which is easy for readers to understand and perceive,” he says. “Filtering them is not easy at all.”

Beside listing proverbs, Gioi also explains the meaning of each and their origin.

“That’s the most difficult part,” he says.

“Collecting words of wisdom that no one can understand is pointless. My job is to help people get an idea of the significance and meaning of each saying.”

Understanding a proverb is not easy, he says.

“Someone could spend their whole life trying to come to grips with the meaning of a saying. That’s why I have to spend a lot of time picking them apart.”

The mammoth task of collecting is too big for him to tackle alone, Gioi says, so he usually whips up some support from his friends.

His search often takes him to book stores. Some of his favourite reference points are books like Confucianism’s Quintessence, I Ching (Book of Changes), Shih Shu – Wu Ching (Four Books and Five Classics, nine ancient Chinese works handed down by Confucius and his followers).

“I like these books, they contain many profound and subtle sayings of ancient sages. I suffer from arthritis and I have to walk with crutches, but that doesn’t stop me going from shop to shop looking for words of wisdom.”

Gioi also looks for sayings in newspapers, novels, text-books and even calendars.

After he updates the collection he rewrites, supplements and rearranges his notebooks clearly so he can refer to them easily.

“Sometimes, my wife and children complain about my work and wonder if I’m obsessed, but I think my hobby is very meaningful, it’s not redundant and I never give up,” Gioi says.

“It’s like studying, it’s never irrelevant, the older I get, the more I have to study.”


After graduating from university in the northern province of Thanh Hoa, Gioi worked as a teacher during the resistance against the French. In 1955 he moved to Ha Nam Province where he got a job as head master of a secondary school.

It was a good job, but Gioi didn’t want to relax. He continued studying in Ha Noi and was eventually offered a job as a head teacher at a high school there. He returned home in 1981 and took up the post of chief of the Education Office.

Because of his long experience in education, Gioi says he understands the responsibilities of being a good teacher. The words he collects are not to show off his own abundance of learning, but to help people understand the value of knowledge.

“I record the proverbs with the hope that they can help us widen our intelligence, and live more optimistically and humanely,” he says.

With the morality of a teacher, Gioi says he often thinks about how the young generation can learn moral principles and good things in life.

“I lived through some hard times,” the teacher says.

“Sometimes after a day’s teaching I had to come home and help my wife make tofu to sell at the market.”

But the hardships he faced haven’t held him back, instead he learnt how to tackle life and make the most from it.

Although he has already published two critically acclaimed books, Gioi says he doesn’t want to stop there.

“As the saying goes, when misfortune reaches its limit, then comes prosperity,” he says.

Gioi has seen his fair share of hardship. He may not be a rich man in terms of material goods, but his wealth of knowledge is far more valuable than that, he says.


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