This proverb is derived from a chapter about Zhang Liang from the Records of the Grand Historian. Zhang Liang is best known as being a hero of the early Han Dynasty (1046-256 B.C.).
He was an aristocrat of the Han state during the Warring States period. After the Qin Dynasty overtook the Han Dynasty, Zhang Liang, in an act of revenge, hired an assassin to try and kill the Qin emperor, but he failed. Due to what he had done, the Qing emperor sent out a warrant for Zhang, which forced Zhang to become a fugitive.
One day, while he was crossing a bridge, he saw an old man through a shoe down from the bridge. The old man then turned to Zhang and shouted: “Young boy, pick up the shoe for me!”
Zhang was shocked by the old man’s blatant request and even wanted to beat him up for it. However, he restrained himself from doing anything violent due to the old man’s age. So he complied with the old man’s request and brought him the shoe. As Zhang was about to hand the shoe to the old man, the old man exclaimed: ”Put it back on my foot!”
Zhang knelt down and put the shoe back on the old man’s foot. Right after, the old man stood up laughing and left. Zhang saw him off. However, the man returned after having put some distance between himself and Zhang, saying: “You, young child, are teachable! Meet me here at dawn five days from now.” Zhang Liang nodded his head in agreeance.
The two met again five days later and the old man again tested Zhang’s tolerance by accusing him of being unpunctual. But Zhang passed this test as well. Zhang’s actions and his ability to forbear such humilities and insults confirmed to the old man that he was a rare find. Finally, the old man taught Zhang in the art of war by giving him military classics and told him: “Read it well, and you can become an adviser to the king.” Finally, Zhang Liang helped Liu Bang to establish his kingdom and found the Han Dynasty. Together with Han Xin and Xiao He, Zhang was regarded as one of the “three heroes” of the early Han Dynasty.
This is how “this young child is teachable” became a proverb to praise a promising youth who is regarded as being worth teaching.
Translated by Cecilia