In my desultory reading of the news last week of Chen Guangcheng’s various ordeals and machinations, I must admit that there was only one thing that I found memorable. A Chinese newspaper, writing about the affair, mentioned how the intrigue surrounding Chen had practically hijacked the terms of Hillary Clinton’s visit to China. The newspaper used what I thought was a very beautiful proverb to describe the situation: “A small leaf in front of the eye can obscure an entire mountain.”
I love Chinese proverbs. I studied Chinese on and off for several years, and I always found the proverbs and idioms most memorable. It’s surprising but true – there are a vast number of everyday scenarios where English just does not have an appropriate idiom, but which the Chinese language captures just perfectly.
An early one I was introduced to is – wu shi bu xiao bai bu – 50 steps laugh at a 100 steps. The story is, there’s an army that suddenly comes face to face with a much larger and terrifying foe. One detachment of soldiers, terrified, beat a hasty retreat; they run back 50 steps and hide from the enemy. After a while, they look behind them and see that there’s another detachment of soldiers who have run back 100 steps. Seeing this latter group, the first group of soldiers begin to laugh and mock at them for being cowards – 50 steps laughing at 100 steps.
My favorite Chinese proverb is – hua she tian zu – drawing feet on a snake. The story goes, in ancient China, there was a drawing competition in which a large group of artists were taking part. At the start of the contest, the theme was revealed – the artists had to draw snakes, and the best one would win. Amongst the contestants was a very talented and great artist. Finding the challenge far beneath his level of skill, he quickly dashed off a very beautiful and realistic snake, while the other contestants were still only getting warmed up. After he finished his painting, he looked around for a few minutes and saw that everyone else was hard at work. He began getting bored, and began itching for something to do. So one by one, he started drawing feet under his snake. Needless to say, his painting won no prizes that day.
I remember a few months back, a friend called me up one day and told me, “I thought about you a lot today.” Feeling very gratified, I said, “That’s wonderful!” She paused for a moment and said, “Yes, I had to sit and listen to boring engineering presentations all day.”
What else could I say? — except, hua she tian zu.
I wonder if any of you who know Chinese could tell me what the words are for the leaf-mountain proverb. Are there any Chinese proverbs that you are particularly fond of?