樹 倒 猢 猻 散
shù dǎo hú sūn (Chinese)
literal translation: “when a tree falls, the monkeys scatter”
My roommate, KY, was born in China and lived there for the first few years of his life. His parents always used many proverbs. This is one of his favorites. He says it describes “fair-weather fans.” He explains, “When a leader loses power his followers abandon him. Or the fans cheer for whoever’s winning.” As you can see from the translation, the literal meaning is that when the tree falls, which is the monkeys’ home, they abandon it.
K explains the interesting dichotomy present in this proverb. Chinese culture emphasizes loyalty: loyalty to the family, loyalty to the state. But it also emphasizes practicality and taking courses of action that will benefit you the most. “This proverb,” K explains, “criticizes disloyal people. But it also shows how to be practical.” Clearly it is disloyal to abandon your home, your leader, your family etc. But it also makes practical sense to find a new one if the old one is defunct.
It’s curious how much complex meaning a simple proverb can convey. I guess this is the point of proverbs. Sometimes it is difficult to describe deep ideas such as loyalty and pragmatism. So cultures develop seemingly simple sayings that can convey powerful messages. The proverb is unique because it can be easily shared and performed. It is usually a light piece, no longer than a sentence. But if the audience takes time to further digest the proverb, its true meaning becomes evident.