Chinese proverbs 2: “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”

Cultural transmitters: oral and printed proverbs

How to deal with adversity, how to get success, and the funniest Chinese proverbs all feature in this post.

William Scarborough collected, translated, and published 2720 Chinese proverbs in 1875. Some of these old ones are included here in this, my second installment of oriental nuggets of life advice. The classic short proverbs are called Chéngyǔ, each consisting of only four characters which form tout axioms like:

If you love me, you have to love my dog too.

Longer ones, also dating back centuries, are Xiēhòuyǔ, like this one:

When the wind of change blows, some build walls, while others build windmills.

There are many thousands to savour, and they are still used in education and conversation today, so we can safely call them ‘culture transmitters’. Setbacks and opposition feature heavily among the thousands I have read. Here are my favourites:

Defeat isn’t bitter if you don’t swallow it.

You cannot prevent the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair.

Unless there is opposing wind, a kite cannot rise.

No matter how tall the mountain is, it cannot block the sun.

To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.

Even the tallest tower started from the ground.

A hundred no’s are less agonizing than one insincere yes.

Don’t listen to what they say – go see.

Rich men accumulate money; the poor accumulate years.

Tips for success and happiness make up another numerous group, drenched in the same wry humanism I have come to admire in these proverbs:

Wealth is like shit: useful only when spread around.

If you want to get along, let the old respect the young.

You won’t help shoots grow by pulling them up higher.

Do not anxiously expect what is not yet come; do not vainly regret what is already past.

Don’t build a new ship out of old wood.

A man who chases two rabbits catches neither.

A clumsy bird that flies first will get to the forest earlier.

If you stand straight, do not fear a crooked shadow.

He who will not economize will have to agonize.

A little impatience will spoil great plans.

Do not believe that you will reach your destination without leaving the shore.

If you want to avoid being cheated, ask for prices at three different stores.

Men trip not on mountains; they trip on molehills.

Man is heaven and earth in miniature.

And finally, here are some humourous sage adages:

A man who keeps his feet firmly on the ground has trouble putting on his trousers.

There is only one pretty child in the world, and every mother has it.

A red-nosed man may be a teetotaller, but no one will believe him.

Experience is a comb that we receive just when we are going bald.

There are always ears on the other side of the wall.

There are two kinds of perfect people: those who are dead, and those who have not been born yet.

The way you cut your meat reflects the way you live.

It is not economical to go to bed early to save the candles if the result is twins.

Do not employ handsome servants.

Want a thing long enough and you don’t.

And in this vein, here is a more recent, nationally known saying:

If you love your children, send them to New York. If you hate your children, also send them to New York.

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