li di san chi you shen ling
away ground three feet exist divine/numinous spirit
There are gods and spirits 3 feet off the ground.
Even when you think you’re alone, the spirits are still watching you, so don’t act differently even if you don’t think anyone is watching.
Chinese proverb usually used by parents as a warning to their children. It’s comparable to Christian families warning their children that God is always watching them, but with roaming spirits. This is related to the Chinese folk belief in spirits of the deceased who act as gods. By convincing a child that they are constantly being watched, the child would be from the parents’ point of view more likely to behave even when they think no one is around. This was used often when I was a child and my mother expected to be away for a while and wanted me to finish my homework before using the computer.
However, threat is not the only application of the proverb, as it also implies karma. Even when you do something good and no one sees, it ticks a point in your favor and the gods always know who’s in the right.
“Once a beggar, do a good deed. Twice a beggar, pay him no heed.”
The informant related to me the importance of this proverb in his life – “This proverb is a rule to live by. When I first came across it, I liked it because it rhymed and had a nice rhythm to it. But it served me well later in life. I remember when I was starting in the business world, and even much, much later, I was approached by several charity cases who had real talent in fields that were vital to my firm and my business. Therefore, I gave them chances. And more chances. And yet more chances. Until I realized one day that they were obviously trying to swindle me by quietly taking advantage of my generosity. It was then that I remembered this proverb. Since then, I have lived by it religiously. Everyone gets one opportunity. If you blow it, so long.”
This proverb is actually quite simple and easy to remember due to, as the informant said, its rhyme and rhythm. It came in handy a lot later, when he realized that people were conning him because of his affinity to give out infinite “second” chances. It is, therefore, a precautionary proverb. It is also rather pessimistic, even slightly cynical, because it serves to remind people that not everyone in the world is deserving of a second chance, even those who seem most sincere. It also is a harsh reminder that people are not as nice and genuine as we chalk them to be. The informant’s experience demonstrates this clearly, because no matter how pure his intentions were, people always tried to put one over him because he was just too darn nice. It is also a warning against freeloaders, telling us to remember that while it is right to help someone out in need, one mustn’t let this pity blind one to the parasitism that is fueled by excessive generosity.