A Sunday School Truth

by Ben Schutz 7. February 2012 21:51

The Chinese idiom 老生常谈 (lao3 sheng1 chang2 tan2) literally means the mere platitudes or commonplace talk of an old scholar. The idiom comes from a story about an "old scholar" called Guan Lu who lived in the State of Wei during the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280).

Guan was a child prodigy and by the tender age of 15 he was renown for his scholarly abilities. He was so well versed in classical literature and astronomy that he was invited to a local magistrate's home to discuss these matters with more than 100 philosophers. These philosophers tried to completely stump the young prodigy with curly questions, but it was to no avail.

Guan's prestige continued to grow and officials sought him out for advice. One day, two ministers of the imperial court asked Guan to fortell their fortunes and career paths because they had both had bad dreams the previous night. Guan learned that the two officials were nasty pieces of work. They were vindictive and greedy and despised by their colleagues and subordinates. So Guan told the officials that their dreams indicated a gloomy future beset with many problems and difficulties.

One minister was like a cat on a hot tin roof - he became very anxious and worried about what Guan had told him. The other minister tried to console him by telling him that Guan's words were the commonplace talk of a scholar and that he should not work himself into a lather over nothing.

However, several months later both ministers were executed for their involvement in a bungled coup. Guan subsequently told his friends that this was a typical example of what can happen if people ignore the truth expressed by a commonplace notion. English speakers call these commonplace notions Sunday school truths.

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Give up halfway

by Ben Schutz 6. September 2011 22:25

The Chinese idiom 半途而废 (ban4 tu2 er2 fei4) literally means give up before the job is done.

It comes from about a story about a man called Yue Yangzi (乐羊子) who lived in the State of Yue during the Warring States Period (475-221BC).

One day on his travels, Yue Yangzi happened upon a piece of gold lying in the middle of the road. He picked it up and took it home to give to his wife. His wife was not pleased by this present. In fact, she scolded Yue Yangzi for his lack of morals:

A virtuous man does not drink the thief's water nor does he take food out of the mouths of the poor. Yet, you have picked up another man's lost valuables and then tried to claim them as your own. How can you live with yourself?

Yue Yangzi was extremely ashamed and he set off with his tail between his legs to put the gold back where he had found it. This sorry episode clearly highlighted to Yue Yangzi that he was seriously lacking in knowledge and wisdom. Eventually (with some prodding from his wife), he decided to leave his family and begin a long journey to seek out scholars who could help him become a better man. A year went by and then, out of the blue, Yue Yangzi returned home. Needless to say, his wife was very surprised:

Why have you returned? You have barely spent one year studying with the scholars.

Yue Yangzi somewhat sheepishly replied that he had come back because he was missing his wife and family so much. His wife was not impressed. She took a pair of scissors and went to the loom at which she had been working. Pointing at the half done brocade on the loom, she sententiously proclaimed:

I have spent many hours weaving this brocade strand by strand from the finest silk. Yet, it is nothing until I weave the final strand. If I were to cut the silk now, all my previous hard work would be wasted. And so it is with your studies. You can only acquire great knowledge through hard work and diligence. Can't you see that to stop studying now would be the same as cutting the brocade on the loom?

Yue Yangzi was moved by his wife's words of wisdom. He again left home and resumed his journey seeking enlightenment.

Several years later Yue Yangzi again returned home. However, this time he was a learned man (and his wife rejoiced to see him!)

For some time, I thought that the English idiom throw in the towel had the same meaning as this Chinese idiom. However, I have now changed my tune. The English idiom comes from boxing, where a fighter concedes defeat by throwing the towel used to wipe his face into the ring. It envisages a situation where the fighter cannot win no matter how well he fights - the result is beyond his control as the other fighter is just too good. The Chinese idiom also contemplates a type of failure, but it is due to a lack of self-discipline rather than factors beyond one's control.

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Blog | China | English | Idioms | Learning | Mandarin

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