Chinese proverbs 1: “All things are difficult before they are easy”

For Chinese New year, also known as the Spring Holiday, I trawled through hundreds of Chinese proverbs, so you don’t have to. Most seem lifted straight from humanism; there are almost none that mention a father fairy in the sky. There isn’t anything about inescapable fate, either; what karma is mentioned, is brought by people on themselves. There are many about shops, which is no surprise with China’s millions of small-shopkeepers:

A man without a smiling face must not open a shop.

It is easy to open a shop – the hard part is keeping it open.

The main two topics of Chinese proverbs will be covered in this blog post. Albert Einstein, himself no mean coiner of aphorisms, did not want his diaries published. Of course they were, and so now we know why he was ashamed of them. He visited Shanghai in 1922, and, as he disembarked, he got confirmation that he’d won the Nobel Prize. In great spirits, he sampled the Chinese, writing that for “European visitors like us, comical mutual staring” happened all the time – mirroring my experiences in twenty-first century Yueyang. Just like today, “In the air, there is a stench of never-ending manifold variety,”  and everywhere, “there are loud open workshops and shops, making a great noise, but nowhere is there any quarrelling. […] Even those reduced to working like horses never give the impression of conscious suffering. A peculiar herd-like nation … often more like automatons than people.” Einstein frowned at the Asian squat just like I did the first few months here, surprised at seeing hundreds of people sitting around comfortably in a position “like Europeans do when they relieve themselves out in the leafy woods. All this occurs quietly and demurely.”

Other observations, about the apathy of children, luckily do no longer match mine, and it his clear that he did not have a high opinion of what he saw in 1922. Yet, his “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new,” could be lifted straight from the Confucian tradition, regardless of how strangely they squat in China. As with Einstein’s maxims, the number 1 topic among Chinese proverbs concerns learning, and the right attitude to it. Unchanged today, in China, there has always been a deep respect for teachers, and for books and experience and the tenacity to keep developing. Here is a sample of the best ones on education:

Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

After three days without reading, talk becomes flavourless.

If a son is uneducated, his dad is to blame.

Do not confine your children to your own learning, for they were born in another time.

A nation’s treasure is in its scholars.

Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.

Teachers open the door but you must walk through it yourself.

He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask stays a fool forever.

And finally, the classic:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

That one has been claimed for every major religion, and stapled onto many philosophers – I have even seen it attributed to Einstein, imagine that! But it is the Chinese of old who came up with that one. Now, for the following selection, attitude and character concern the second most numerous group of Chinese proverbs:

No wind, no waves.

If you don’t want anyone to know, don’t do it.

The journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.

Respond intelligently even to unintelligent treatment.

To believe in one’s dreams is to spend all of one’s life asleep.

Dig the well before you are thirsty.

Be the first to the field and the last to the couch.

Ripe fruit falls by itself – but it doesn’t fall in your mouth.

Patience is a bitter plant, but its fruit is sweet.

I have read and enjoyed the proverbs of many cultures, and I do think a kind of national essence is caught in them, and their continued use proves a cultural continuity. They are old and yet ready for modern use, rather like the Century Egg featured below, which I tried and sort-of kinda almost somewhat enjoyed. The Century Egg is a Chinese delicacy with its own Wikipedia page, and a specialty of Hunan (‘my’ province): For reasons unknown, one takes a raw chicken, quail, or duck egg and wraps it in clay and ash and salt and then forgets about it for months. After digging it up again, it has transformed: inside the dark, transparent, gelatinesque goo around the amber & black yolk, a mysterious kind of leaf patterns grow. It now has taken on a  most peculiar, concentrated, ancient, powerful, medicinal taste – I’ve tried it and lived.

Chinese proverbs are just that: most peculiar, concentrated, ancient, powerful, medicinal. My favourite one so far goes:

He who thinks too much about every step he takes, will always stand on one leg.

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