No less a figure than Hillary Clinton recently exclaimed: “I love Chinese proverbs.” During her recent trip to Beijing she peppered her speeches and conversations with them. When she visited a power plant she was ready with “Before you are thirsty, dig a well.”
But as Tim Johnson, author of the blog China Rises points out, Chinese proverbs must be used carefully. Before her arrival in Beijing, Clinton made a speech to the Asia Society in which she spoke of Sino-US relations and quoted the proverb: “When on a common boat, cross the river peacefully together.”
Clinton’s meaning was that China and the US must cope with the current financial crisis in a coordinated way. But a Chinese person might interpret the proverb somewhat differently. Johnson explains that the origin of the proverb was an episode involving the warring states of Yue and Wu. The combatants found themselves on the same boat during a storm and agreed to lay down their weapons for the duration. However, after surviving the storm these bitter foes fought on.
Understanding China’s idioms and their context is clearly important. Why do they still matter? Because they still figure prominently in conversations among contemporary Chinese. If you carelessly pour scalding tea on your lap, you might be told: “Once bitten by a snake, 10 years fearful of rope.” It roughly means, if you get hurt once, you will be more careful next time.
Many of China’s proverbs date back several thousand years. They reflect a definite talent for absorbing and repackaging words of wisdom.
Mao thought so too. His Little Red Book (which outlined a sweep of his own admittedly less timeless thoughts) managed a print run of more than 6.5 billion copies, and consisted largely of political directive dressed up in a proverbial style.
The more ancient proverbsact as a sort of cultural shorthand. Well selected ones allow you to say a lot without actually having to say much at all.
In fact, Deng Xiaoping launched China’s modern capitalist era with a proverb: “It matters not if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.“ Thirty years later China is barely recognisable.
It is hard to imagine Obama, Brown or Sarkozy launching a multi-billion dollar bailout with a folksy saying. But such is the power of these idioms in China.
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