The original proverb: “干的早不如干的巧。”
A phonetic transcription: “gan de zao bu ru gan de qiao.”
Direct, word-for-word translation: “do early is not as good as do smartly.”
Translation: “doing smartly is better than doing early.”
I suppose you might look at this and think that procrastination is the soul of Chinese work ethics.
But in all seriousness, given the context of the traditional work ethics, this proverb is almost necessary. The traditional Chinese philosophy towards work – and, one might say, life in general – is as the informant puts it, “about diligence and nothing else”. The informant speculates that this might have to do with the Chinese people’s early development of and dependence on agriculture – after all, there really were no alternatives for early farmers but to work as hard as they could and for as long as they could. Diligence and industry, it has always been believed, are all it takes to produce results.
This mind set was applied to virtually every aspect of the Chinese culture. Workers in every trade and scholars in every field and poets in every art are all encouraged to start work as early as possible and for as long as possible.
So here be a much-needed proverb that recognizes the importance of inspiration and methodology over a rudimentary notion of diligence.
The informant is my mother. She would know of this tradition because, well, she’s Chinese. I certainly wouldn’t say that this is a favorite proverb of hers, but she certainly does enjoy reminding us of it whenever my brother and I are visibly stressed from work.
To me this case demonstrates what may be the most essential function of proverb: to remind of simple truths that are often forgotten because they run contrary to our intuitive beliefs. This particular case is especially interesting as the proverb counters one of the oldest and most prized Chinese virtues.