Sunday, December 20, 2009

Wisdom From the Heartland -- Proverbs From the Provinces of Hebei, Henan, Hubei & Hunan


One can become poor from being wealthy. (For some who are addicted to a lavish lifestyle, their all-too-short period of wealth leads to an even quicker slide into poverty.)

Only one "today"; only one "right now." (It's better for us to take each problem one day at a time; even more importantly, we should focus on the here and now, not the what was here or might not be here.)

For every household, there's one sky once the door's been opened. ("To each his own." Each person's life has its own necessities, problems, reality, and ways of doing things.)

The ingredients for noodles is the same; the kneading is different. (We're basically all the same; it's what we do with our lives that is different.)

A person who is told by another to "drop dead" won't do so unless heaven wills it so. (One's successes or failures are not dictated by the mere wishes of others.)

Those without smiling faces close up shop early. (A prosperous business at least partly depends on a friendly demeanor.)

Reputation is to people what bark is to trees. (Both reputation and bark protect and insulate their respective hosts.)

A person may be poor but not his/her aspirations. (A poverty in funds is least consequential, for a wealth of determination is what enables one to succeed.)

With ten monks come nine accents. ("Too many cooks spoil the broth.")

When one's careful, one can accomplish a hundred things; when one's reckless, even just one inch can be rough going. ("Haste makes waste." Mandarin speakers also say, "With preparations, there won't be any disasters.")

No matter how big the biggest mountain is, it can never crush the sun. (It's easy to be intimidated in a debate. However, if you argue on behalf of righteousness, stand your ground, no matter how bullying or blustering the opposition is, "the truth will out.")

Like a couple of mutes accusing each other of interrupting. (Who knows who started this?)

You lift your head, not lower it, to ask for help. (Those who need the help of other people ought to show a respectful, pleasant demeanor instead of just silently demanding a handout.)


Even a god won't stand listening to heartfelt words repeated three times. (With even the best intentioned message, if its repeated too much, it goes in one ear and out the other, if resentment doesn't set in first. In other words, don't nag!)

Like one who can give up a thousand sentences but not be able to part with one copper coin. (Said of those who enter a shop, look around, and chat all day but leave without buying anything.)

Pushing a wheelbarrow requires no education; all that is required here is for the gluteus maximus to move. (There are times just to roll up the sleeves and get to work and let good old-fashioned elbow grease get the job done.)

Good people are fooled just as a good horse is ridden. (Here, "fooled" and "ridden" rhyme and are somewhat homophonic. The naive end up, like a docile horse, being manipulated.)

There can be a once or a twice but never a third or a fourth. (An occasional honest mistake can be tolerated but not mistakes over and over, especially the same or similar errors.)

To hear of something a hundred times is not as worthwhile as seeing it once. ("One picture speaks a thousand words.")

To secure the front gate against tigers but to let a wolf in through the back gate. (To be shortsighted, unable to see the big picture, thus doomed to adversity.)


In sales, the goods make up thirty percent, while the shopkeeper's facial expression makes up seventy percent. (Similar to the Hebei proverb above; a merchant with a jolly face will always be able to sell his/her products. People tend to patronize a store with friendly, smiling and helpful staff.)

Beautiful flowers are not fragrant, while those that are fragrant are not particularly beautiful. ("Don't judge a book by its cover.")

As long as there's one person around, there is a world. ("Where there's life, there's hope.")

To lead an ox up a tree. (To engage in a foolish, absurd act, or to try to teach an unteachable person a skill. Mandarin speakers also say, "To play a stringed instrument before a cow.")

Not to blame the tether for being too short but rather to blame the well for being too deep. (To play the blame game--to blame everybody and everything, but not oneself, for one's shortcomings.)

If you fall down a well, don't expect your ears to latch onto something. (Said of people who are about to take a big, unwise risk, of those who are foolishly optimistic.)

To be a bandit while it's still in the middle of the day; to try to eat a duck's egg before it's all the way out of the duck's bottom. (Said of the impetuous and rash, those who cannot wait to plan properly and who, instead go off pell mell to do something foolish and doomed to failure.)

When one is lucky, not even the city walls can stop one; when one bears misfortune, even one's can of salt will contain maggots. (Luck and adversity--they are due to one's fate.)

Having a home with an old person living inside is like having a treasure. (Old people are founts of wisdom and experience and enrich the lives of younger people with whom they live.)


It takes much clay to build such a big oven. (Big, grand things are also the sums of their parts. "Rome wasn't built in a day," as we say in the West.)

The problem is not if the soil will yield crops but rather if the farmer will till the soil. ("Where there is a will, there's a way." Mother Nature will do her part; the rest is up to us. Perhaps we can also say as an analog to this proverb: "Heaven helps those who help themselves.")

A small stone can break a great tub. ("All it takes is a small spark to burn down a great forest." Sometimes, as it has been said, "the bigger they are, the harder they fall.")

The land needs irrigation just as an infant needs a wet nurse. (There is an order or system required by nature and nothing can change that.)

From time immemorial, crickets and ants have always cherished their own lives. (Life is precious to all living things, not to mention to human beings.)

When the tofu falls into the ashes, you can neither eat it nor wipe it clean. ("That's the way the cookie crumbles." "Don't cry over spilled milk.")


from Zhongguo rende suhua, Shang Yingshi, ed. (See 6/19/07 for full citation.)

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