Proverb – China


“Sai Won Shi Ma”

“Farmer’s Lost of Horse”

“Don’t get easily discouraged by a misfortune and don’t get too excited about a fortune”

“There is a farmer and son living on a farm. They raise nice horses. One night, the barn’s gate is accidentally left open and one of the black stallions disappears. The following morning, the villagers hear about the news and commensurate with the farmer and his son. For days, the son searches for the horse, but to no avail. In response to the villagers’ consolation, the farmer remains calm and tells them he is not too concerned. The following day, the black stallion returns to the farm with a white horse. The villagers rejoice and congratulate the farmer. Not only did the black stallion return, but they also gained a new horse, which was big news at the time. The farmer, however, does not partake in the celebration of the horses; he tells the villagers not to get too excited. He tells them they may not be so fortunate. A few days later, the son is riding the horses, loses control, and falls and breaks his leg. The village people sympathize with the son and express their sincere apologies for the misfortune. The farmer, however, tells the villagers that he wouldn’t call the accident a “misfortune.” Two months later, the village is invaded by enemies. As a result, everyone has to fight in the army, with the exception of the son who is still recovering from the accident. Ninety percent of the young men who fight in the army are killed. The moral of the story is that one should not get discouraged after a misfortunate event. At the same time, one should not get overly triumphant over good news, because it can easily be followed by misfortune.” – Ping Hu


I collected this proverb from Ping, a good family friend. She was born and raised in Beijing. She moved to New York for high school and attended undergraduate and graduate schools in the States. Altogether, she has lived in the country for 19 years. However, she currently travels back and forth between Beijing, Switzerland, and the States for work. According to Ping, both stories- the “monkey” and “the boy who lost his horse”- are extremely popular and originated in mainland China.

Ping remembers learning all kinds of proverbs during her elementary school years, which sheds light on the functional and cultural role of proverbs. According to Ping, proverbs are used in a wide range of contexts, whether that be in public speaking, education, business gatherings, etc. Often times, people hold contests to see who knows more proverbs, since they are so prevalent in the Chinese culture and play such a big role in the way people communicate.

Like most people I interviewed for folklore, Ping prefaced her stories by telling me she could go on and on about proverbs. Her favorite aspect of a proverb is that it can convey a powerful message in only four Chinese characters. She says, “No one needs to rehash the long story to make the point which comes handy in social networking and business speaking.  I guess that’s what we usually refer to as “culture” – it’s a set of understanding, value and belief deeply embedded in the people who shared the same background.” This one in particular is one of her personal favorites. It has guided her in both her personal and professional life. The moral of the story is as follows: “you will not be successful if you don’t keep your perspective intact. By the same token, a major setback in life is not necessarily a lost cause if you approach the situation with calm and patience.” Ping told me that she constantly reflects on this proverb when faced with either triumphs or setbacks as a way to boost her confidence and maintain an optimistic outlook on a situation. Perseverance is not as easy task but is rewarded once a person overcomes whatever obstacle presents itself.

I myself take comfort in the story’s message. It takes will power and a positive attitude to be able to come to terms with reality and face life’s difficulties. I am further drawn to the message because people have pointed out that I am a “Negative Nancy” and have a hard time staying positive in unfavorable situations. The proverb calls us to question and re-evaluate our attitudes because attitudes ultimately drive our behavior and the way we outwardly live our lives. It also stresses the importance of balance; we should not be overly accepting or critical of life’s fortunes and misfortunes. We should learn from our mistakes and constantly push forward no matter how difficult a situation is.

Another interesting element of the underlying story is its attention to luck. The father never seems to engage in celebratory actions, but rather detached from the triumphs and setbacks that take place in the story. He constantly reminds the villagers to stay levelheaded across good and bad situations, which is similar to the saying, “the bad is always followed by the good” and “the good is always followed by the bad.” The proverb is commonly used in social networking and business practices, which demonstrates its functional nature in the Chinese culture.