Words of Wisdom: Inspiring Chinese proverbs

Through the story of humankind, people have learnt from experience and stored wisdom in stories and proverbs. Here are some Chinese proverbs that give wise counsel in a few short words – and a longer explanation of what they mean.

塞翁失马,安知非福 – Blessings in disguise

Our first proverb comes with a story. 

Once upon a time, a stableman lived in a border area – and one day, a horse escaped from the stable and ran across the border to where a nomadic tribe lived. Instead of being upset, the stableman smiled and said, "It may turn out to be a good thing that my horse is lost." 

After a few months, the horse returned – along with another fine steed. The stableman's neighbors congratulated him, but he said "Are you sure it's a good thing to get this horse for nothing?" Sure enough, the stableman's son rode the new horse – and fell off, breaking his leg. The neighbors consoled the stableman, but he repeated "It might be a good thing!" 

Soon afterwards, the nomads invaded and all the young men were drafted to serve as soldiers – but the stableman's injured son sat out the war… and the neighbors finally understood the stableman's wisdom. 

Not everything in life is straightforward. As the English idiom has it, bad things could be "a blessing in disguise" – and every bad situation could have a positive effect, just as "every cloud has a silver lining."

A blessing in disguise

吃一堑,长一智 – Learning from mistakes

"A fall into a ditch makes you wiser" – or, more poetically, "A fall into a pit, a gain in your wit".

There are similar sayings in English, such as "Failure is the mother of success" and "Nothing succeeds like failure." The idea is that we can all learn lessons from what we do wrong – and the education can make us better for the future. 

A fall in a pit...

众人拾柴火焰高 – Teamwork

"Only when everyone contributes wood will the fire burn brightly."

This saying is a call for unity and collective action, because when everybody gathers fuel, the flames are higher; the more people working toward the same goal, the more strength you can call upon. 

A related English idiom is "Many hands make light work," but it was perhaps best expressed as recently as 2002 in the title of a book by John C Maxwell: "Teamwork makes the dream work."

Only when everyone contributes...

授人以鱼不如授人以渔 – Education

This one translates as "Teaching a man to fish is better than giving him a fish." A fuller version might read "Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day; teach him how to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime."

It's an arrestingly simple concept (presumably from before the era of over-fishing) that is often used in political arguments – from both sides. Small-state adherents use it to campaign against government handouts – but their opponents note that the proverb's strong recommendation is for widespread education…

Give a man a fish...

爱屋及乌 – House and crow

Not all Chinese idioms have a close English equivalent, although when we get to the end of this proverb's origin story we'll suggest one – see if you agree. 

According to an ancient Chinese superstition, the crow is an unlucky bird – and the family of whatever house it lands upon will suffer poor fortunes. However, if you truly love someone, that should extend even to the crow atop their house. 

That's the meaning of the saying "爱屋及乌" – literally, "Love house and crow." Perhaps the closest English relation is "Love me, love my dog" –a similar expression insisting on total acceptance of a person, whatever their foibles and shortcomings.

Love my house...

Series 2

千里之行,始于足下 - A journey of a thousand miles...

Do you ever find it hard to get out of bed in the morning? Well this one's for you. "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Essentially, while it might feel tough to start a new project, you can never achieve anything if you aren't willing to make a small start.

A journey of a thousand miles..

路遥知马力,日久见人心 -As distance tests a horse's strength...

You shouldn't judge a person at first glance. Indeed, Chinese tradition is that you can never really know them until you have spent a long time together. And the comparison made by our forebears is with a horse, who also needed to be relied upon in times of trouble but was never really tested until after a long journey.

As distance tests the strength of a horse...

家和万事兴 - Harmony in a family...

Chinese philosophy puts great importance on family but also on achieving a harmonious life. The two come together in this proverb which teaches that domestic bliss is the secret to success in life.

Harmony in a family...

行百里者半九十 - A journey 90 percent completed is still only half done

Another proverb involving a journey - travel is often used as a metaphor for life. There are two interpretations: Firstly the last part of a job, when you are almost finished, can be the most challenging as you tend to get the easy parts done first. Secondly, there's no point leaving a job nearly finished, you may as well have stopped much sooner unless you are willing to push through to the end.

千里之堤,溃于蚁穴 - An embankment a thousand miles long can be destroyed by an ants' nest

On a big project, it can be the small details that count. Sometimes they may not even seem that significant at the time but can have have huge consequences later on.

An embankment a thousand miles long...

Series 3

失之毫厘,谬以千里 - Miss by an inch, miss by a mile

The gap between success and failure is notoriously slim. But according to this Chinese proverb, it's infinitesimally small. If you don't reach your goal, even by the narrowest of margins, you're still in the same situation as if you had been wildly off.

和羹之美,在于合异 - The most delicious soups are made by combining different ingredients

Eating the same food every day can get boring. Reading the same book over and over again can become a chore, no matter how well written. And sometimes we should make an effort to welcome people into our friendship circle who may not share our views. Difference is enriching - whether that is in cuisine or in life.

锲而不舍,金石可镂 - You can carve and polish without even denting rotten wood, but if you persist, even metal or stone can be shaped

With hard work, anything is possible. Even though at times it may seem like you are not progressing, if you can persist you will find that you can overcome the most challenging tasks.

履不必同,期于适足;治不必同,期于利民 - People should wear the shoes that suit their feet; governments should adopt the model that benefits their people

No one would suggest a one-size-fits-all approach to footwear. It's not only that people come in different sizes and shapes - people also have different goals and ambitions. Some can enjoy more leisure time and might want running shoes, others choose to stay at home in their slippers. Some might want steel toe-capped boots to protect their feet as they work, others might want to create a positive impression in the office with something smart.

So why would we suggest that all countries should have the same models for their governments regardless of their history, the priorities of their people, the focus of their economies?

孤举者难起,众行者易趋 - It is difficult to lift a heavy object alone, it is easier to do it with others

Teamwork makes the dream work. Whether you are trying to carry a sofa out of an apartment or solve a complex problem, you'll find it easier if you get friends, colleagues, family, neighbors or complete strangers to help!

海纳百川,有容乃大 - The ocean is vast because it admits all rivers. The wise man listens to all sides.

Staring out from the edge of an ocean can be a powerful feeling. There is a sense of timelessness and ancient power held by the water. And the seas are nourished by rivers - small fast flowing mountain watercourses, and slow sluggish giants that wind over plains. Be like the ocean, exhorts this proverb, and absorb wisdom from different sources.