Tag Archives: Chinese proverb

塞翁失马,焉知非福 – Sai Weng lost his horse, how can I know it is not a blessing

Background: The informant is a Chinese immigrant who immigrated to the US in adulthood. She grew up on a small island off the coast of China.

Informant: “The old man in the story is named Sai Weng…”sai” means far away, far from the city, and “weng” means sort of..just old man. Sai Weng raised horses in the countryside. He had a great horse to help till his fields, but one day it ran away. His neighbor said to him, you must have spent so much money on this wonderful horse, you must be very upset. But the farmer was not sad, he said, “Who knows whether this is a good or bad thing?

But one night the horse returned and brought many female horses with him, who would now all belong to the farmer. Everyone congratulated the farmer, but he still said, “We don’t know if it’s good or bad.”

Sai Weng had a son who loved to ride horses, and he wanted to tame the wild horses. One day while trying to ride a wild horse he broke his leg. His neighbors offered their condolences to him, they said “Oh no, what a young healthy man but his leg is broken now. What a loss, I am very sorry.” The old man stayed quiet, and the neighbors asked why. “Good thing or bad thing, it’s hard to say,” the old man finally said. The neighbors did not understand him at all. His son was crippled, and he’s not even sad! One day, a war broke out in China. All the young men in the village were sent to the war, but when they came to Sai Weng’s house, they saw his son had a broken leg and did not make him go to war. That war was terrible…most of the young men who had been sent to fight died, and Sai Weng’s son was one of the only young men left in the village. Then, the neighbors perhaps understood.

Basically when bad things happen, you always stay positive.

This is… sort of…old people talk. An old man’s wisdom. The core main idea is that you must stay positive, even in the face of unlucky circumstances.

When good things happen, he remains cautious. He is prepared for the bad things. He stays strong. When anything bad happens, he won’t be devastated: he always stays positive. When good things happen, don’t be overly excited. The American saying “There’s no free lunch” is similar I believe…when something good happens you should still be weary. It’s the Chinese people’s philosophy, don’t be too happy but don’t be too sad. When good things happen stay cautious, and when bad things happen stay positive”

Me: “Where did you first hear this story?”

Informant: “I think I heard this story in my textbooks when I was in school, or maybe my dad told it to me.”

Context: This was told to me over a recorded phone call. The text is mostly translated from mandarin, though certain sentences and words were told to me in English.

Deceiving Yourself 掩耳盗铃

Background: My friend and I were talking about how different countries cope with the pandemic. We found that a few politicians around the world didn’t take the coronavirus seriously enough at first and pretended that it was only a small problem. My friend described them as “掩耳盗铃”.

Main piece:

掩耳盗铃

Pinyin: yan er dao ling

Transliteration: Cover your ears and steal the doorbell.

Informant’s explanation of the phrase: 

I think it came from a story. Well I’m not sure if it really happened, probably just a fable. A thief went to another person’s place because he wants their doorbell somehow. He tries to steal it, but he realized the doorbell would ring! So his genius solution is to cover his ears and then steal the bell. His logic is like he wouldn’t hear a sound, so other people won’t either. This dumbass got caught of course.

Context: As it was used by the informant in describing politicians who refused to take action, the proverb is used with irony to describe people who clearly understand what they do is wrong but still carry on with self-deception. 

Analysis: This particular form of proverb, 成语 (cheng yu), is very similar to another form of Chinese folk speech, the enigmatic folk similes. Both contain double meanings, with one layer of superficial storyline and a deeper connotation of advise, mockery, or knowledge. The difference, however, is that cheng yu often adhere to a uniform form of strictly four characters. While cheng yu are also proverbs that illustrate folk wisdom, in most cases the user must be familiar with the legend or history they allude to in order to use them in common speech. Cheng Yu thus becomes an identity marker. They reflect the culture, values, and identity of their “folk”, as well as a bigger reservoir of folklores that provide them with derivative connotations.

For a different version of this proverb, see

郑荣萍. “掩耳盗铃.” 中学生英语:少儿双语画刊 5 (2012): 13–13. Print.

Chinese Proverb for a Struggling Student


Background: Below is a conversation about a proverb that the informant was told at the start of her academic journey at a competitive math and science boarding school. Two years later, she still holds the proverb near to her heart and uses it as motivation for her all-nighters. 

Main Piece:

Informant: I was struggling in excel with my workload and my math teacher told me a chinese proverb that helped. He basically said, the proverb goes like this like, “20 years ago was the best time to plant the tree, but the second best time to plant a tree is right now.

Interviewer: What does that mean?

Informant: Basically saying that you know you should have started this thing, a WHILE ago, but now that you haven’t done it you know that in the past that was the best time to start it. But, you haven’t so the best time to start it, again, is right now. And I think that works well cause like I’d procrastinate a lot on homework and then I’d be stressed like there’s no way I can finish this. And it’s like well yeah you should’ve started it 6 hours ago, but — you didn’t. So, the best time to start it is right now. 

Interviewer: Tell me about this teacher

Informant: He was half Chinese, his mother uh— actually I don’t know which region, but she spoke Cantonese not Mandarin. And his father was from Kentucky, he was Black. He was really understanding. Not judgemental, he knew that waiting til the last minute was punishment enough.

Context: This conversation occurred over a FaceTime call where I asked the informant if she had any sayings or proverbs she liked. She instantly told me this. The conversation was casual, but very relatable as we both lived out our shared experience of procrastination and all-nighters.

My thoughts: It was interesting to find out that this was one of those sayings that keeps the informant pushing through some tough times. It felt very personal to know that this has become a mantra for her. I also found it interesting and quite touching that she resonates so wholeheartedly will a proverb from a culture that is not her own. I feels that not only the proverb was given to her, but a kindness and genuine motivation from her teacher was transferred as well. 

Chinese Proverb of “To Kill Two Birds with One Stone”

Main Story: 

“There is a common saying in Chinese (Mandarin) : 箭双雕” 

Original Script : 箭双雕 

Phonetic: Yi (Yee) Jian Shuang Diao

Transliteration: Complete two tasks with one job 

Full translation: to shoot two birds with one arrow

This saying is also present in English, it is the same concept as “to kill two birds with one stone”. The theory being you can complete two separate tasks with one action. For example: say a person has to go get a test done at the doctor’s office and also a check up with a different doctor. But both doctors happen to operate out of the same medical office building. By scheduling the appointments back to back, the person is able to complete two tasks (the doctors’ appointments) with one action (driving to the medical office building). 

Background: 

The informant of this info is my friend and she is Chinese and used to live in Shanghai. She always found it interesting that this phrase exists in both English and in Chinese in an almost synonymous context. She can’t find anywhere as to which phrase came first and who got it from who or if the similarity is purely coincidental, and if it is a coincidental likeness then she wanders what does that say about human nature? 

Context:

The informant is a friend of mine and we were video calling over the phone during quarantine and just chatting about life and funny coincidences across cultures.

My thoughts: 

I kind of agree with my friend on how she feels about the odd coincidence between the two languages and the same phrase. It is interesting that they are so similar in literally every aspect of their meaning. 

Chinese Proverb/ Chengyu

Note: The form of this submission includes the dialogue between the informant and I before the cutoff (as you’ll see if you scroll down), as well as my own thoughts and other notes on the piece after the cutoff. The italics within the dialogue between the informant and I (before the cutoff) is where and what kind of direction I offered the informant whilst collecting. 

Informant’s Background:

My parents and I are from Central China, but I grew up in Kentucky.

Piece and Full Translation Scheme of Folk Speech:

Original Script: 蜻蜓点水

Transliteration: qīng tíng diǎn shuǐ

Translation: “The dragonfly touches the water lightly” or “superficial contact”

Piece Background Information:

We have a saying in my family that goes like “qīng tíng diǎn shuǐ”.

You know how when dragonflies fly around a pond and when they touch the water, they gently touch it and keep flying along? Well that’s just another way of describing someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. They say he’s just “qīng tíng diǎn shuǐ”. And that just means like they don’t go deep, they don’t go all the way into the water, they just touch it.

My mom would use this to describe my dad, for example when he would say he was going to clean the kitchen and like only clean half the dishes and leave everything else to be done. So I would hear that phrase used a lot.

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Context of Performance: 

In person, during the day at Ground Zero, a milkshake shop and cafe on USC’s campus in Los Angeles.

Thoughts on Piece: 

The comparison of half-way cleaning to a dragonfly who skims the water is quite a romanticized outlook and allows for the conversation of “well… you really only cleaned a little bit” to be more easily had, as there is a funny context added to it. I can definitely relate to needing to somehow calmly and casually bring up to a roommate that they aren’t pulling their share.