China’s location halfway around the world is no obstacle to the profound influence it has had on the West; everything from acupuncture needles to noodles have been accepted in countries around the world. But if there’s one thing about China that Westerners can’t get enough of, it’s inspirational proverbs.
Yes, the exoticism of the Far East has never been more alluring than when it comes in the form of arcane knowledge, especially when it comes to disseminating it through the form of after-dinner crunchy deserts. Sadly, despite the reverence for this ancient culture, it seems that some of these inspirational Chinese proverbs aren’t actually Chinese at all.
In this week’s Mandarin Monday, we’ll take a look at a number of Chinese proverbs that are very popular online, and learn how to say them in Mandarin. But even though these proverbs happen to share an inspirational tone that is usedas the basis for motivational photos, a number of Chinese media have agreed that these proverbs aren’t in fact “Chinese.”
Are they from China? How do you say it in Chinese? Let take a look:
The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person who is doing it
Shuō mǒu shì bùnéng zuò de rén bù yīnggāi gānrǎo biérén qù zuò
That the birds of worry and care fly over your head, this you cannot change, but that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent
烦恼的鸟和照料在你的头上飞扬, 这你不能够改变。 但是他们在你的头发中建立巢, 这你能避免
Fánnǎo de niǎo hé zhàoliào zài nǐ dí tóu shàng fēiyáng, zhè nǐ bù nénggòu gǎibiàn. Dànshì tāmén zài nǐ de tóufā zhōng jiànlì cháo, zhè nǐ néng bì miǎn
Chinese sure do love imagery involving birds and nests, but this quotation comes from 15th century Protestant Reformer Martin Luther.
A man who chases two rabbits catches neither
Zhuībǔ liǎng zhī tùzǐ de lièrén, yī zhī yě méi yǒu zhuō dào
Although Chinese are conservative with their “one rabbit, one catch” policy, this is actually a Latin proverb (Duo lepores qui insequitur, neutrum capit).
Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness
Yǔqí zǔzhòu hēiàn, bùrú ránqǐ làzhú
Not Chinese, this quote instead comes from a 1962 eulogy for Eleanor Roosevelt given by Adlai Stevenson.
Do not confine your children to your own learning, for they were born in another time
Bùyào xiànzhì nǐ de háizǐ zài nǐ zìjǐ de xuéshí lǐ, yīnwéi tāmén chūshēng yú lìng yīgè niándài
This “Chinese proverb” is actually an old Hebrew one.
Proverbs with Unclear Origins
The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now
Zhǒng yīkē shù zuì hǎo de shíjī shì shí nián qián, qícì shì xiànzài
Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are
Sōngxiè zhōng de nǐ, shì zhēnzhèng de nǐ; nǐ zhī suǒyǐ gǎndào yālì, shì yīnwéi nǐ qīdài gǎibiàn zìjǐ
If you want happiness for an hour – take a nap.’ If you want happiness for a day – go fishing. If you want happiness for a year – inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime – help someone else
Rúguǒ nǐ xiǎng yào yī xiǎoshí de xìngfúgǎn, nà jiù qù dǎdǔn. Rúguǒ nǐ xiǎng yào yītiān de xìngfúgǎn, nà jiù qù diàoyú. Rúguǒ nǐ xiǎng yào yīnián de xìngfúgǎn, nà jiù jìchéng cáifù. Rúguǒ nǐ xiǎng yào yī bèizǐ de xìngfúgǎn, nà jiù qù bāngzhù biérén bā
When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills
Dāng fēng xiàng gǎibiàn de shíhòu, yǒurén qìqiáng, yǒurén zuò fēngchē
Whether or not they invented them, windmills don’t happen to be a big part of China’s history.
A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song
Niǎoér chànggē bùshì yīnwéi tāmen yǒu le dáàn, érshì yīnwéi tāmen yǒu gē yào chàng
A fool judges people by the presents they give him
Hūtú rén gēnjù tā rén de sònglǐ juédìng qīnshū
“Why … It’s a red envelope! How did you know?”
A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which every person leaves a mark
Háizǐ de yīshēng jiù xiàng yīzhāng bái zhǐ, zhōubiān měigè rén dōu huì zài shàngmiàn liúxià yìnjì
Don’t open a shop unless you like to smile
Nǐ yàoshì bù xǐhuān wēixiào jiù bié kāidiàn
Chinese shopkeepers: the friendliest profession in China.
Authentic Chinese Proverbs
But hey, there’s no need to be cynical; here are some real, actual Chinese proverbs.
Your teacher can open the door, but you must enter by yourself.
Shīfù lǐng jìn mén, xiūxíng zài gè rén
No blue pill required here.
The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials
Yù bù zhuó, bù chéng qì; rén bù xué, bù zhī yì
This quote is probably the most famous part of the Three-Character Scripture (三字经 sānzìjīng), a text memorized by Chinese school children that taught everything from history, ethics, and Confucian principles.
Paper can’t wrap up a fire
Zhǐ bāo bù zhù huǒ
A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step
Qiān lǐ zhī xíng. shǐ yú zú xià
So why do Westerners insist on attributing numerous proverbs to China? We can only guess that it has to do with the mysticism and allure of a distant and ancient culture. However, what isn’t disputed is the wisdom on display, so feel free to share these “Chinese proverbs” with your friends!