Gems of Chinese Literature
Various Authors, translated by Herbert Allen Giles
Miscellaneous: Proverbs, Household Words, etc.
1520957Gems of Chinese Literature — Miscellaneous: Proverbs, Household Words, etc.Herbert Allen GilesVarious Authors

[The proverbial philosophy of the Chinese is on a scale commensurate in every way with other branches of their voluminous literature. Most Western proverbs, maxims, household words, etc., are to be found embedded therein; sometimes expressed in strictly identical terms, at other times differing only in point of local colour. Thus the Chinese say (e.g.)―

One actor does not make a play.
Out of the wolf’s lair into the tiger’s mouth.
Prevention is better than cure.
Better a living dog than a dead lion.
As the twig is bent the tree’s inclined.
When the cat’s away, the rats play.
Better be a fowl’s beak than a bullock’s rump.
It is the unexpected which always happens.
Oxen till the fields, and rats eat the corn;
Bees make honey, and men steal it, etc., etc.

The name of these is legion. A full collection of such proverbs and sayings, gathered from the past four thousand years, would probably embrace all that is contained in Western literatures in this sense, and leave a margin to the credit of China. The specimens which are given below have been taken at random and brought together without classification. In the majority of cases, the flavour of these will, I think, be found to be peculiarly Chinese.]

Deal with the faults of others as gently as with your own.

Three men’s strength cannot prevail against Truth.

If you bow at all, bow low.

Pay attention to what a man is, not to what he has been.

A man thinks he knows, but a woman knows better.

If Fortune smiles,―who doesn’t? If Fortune doesn’t,―who does?

The host is happy when the guest has gone.

No medicine is as good as a middling doctor.

Great truths cannot penetrate rustic ears.

Better to jilt than be jilted: better to sin than to be sinned against.

[This was a mot of the great and unscrupulous general, Ts‘ao Ts‘ao. It is in no sense a Chinese household word.]

A bottle-nosed man may be a teetotaller, but no one will think so.

Like climbing a tree to catch a fish [Mencius].

“Forbearance” is a rule of life in a word.

With money you can move the Gods; without it, you can’t move a man.

Oblige, and you will be obliged.

Armies are maintained for years, to be used on a single day.

More trees are upright, than men.

Only imbeciles want credit for the achievements of their ancestors.

Long visits bring short compliments.

Deep people don’t say shallow things.

A thousand pictures are not equal to one book.

You can’t talk of the ocean to a well-frog.

If you owe a man money, there is nothing like seeing him often.

A quack will kill a man without a knife.

Let the sovereign be thin so long as his subjects are fat.

Some study shows the need for more.

Better eighty per cent. ready money than cent. per cent. on trust.

The highest towers begin from the ground.

Medicine cures the man who is fated not to die.

If a man has money, he will find plenty who have scales.

Even the best artificial flowers have no smell.

A thousand soldiers are easier to be got than one general.

A thousand prescriptions are more readily forthcoming than a single cure.

No needle is sharp at both ends.

Straight trees are felled first.

No image-maker worships the Gods. He knows what they are made of.

Half an orange tastes as sweet as a whole one.

Even the Yellow River is sometimes clear.

We love our own compositions, but other men’s wives.

Don’t pull up your shoe in a melon-field, nor adjust your hat under a plum-tree (i.e., avoid the appearance of evil).

Free-sitters at the play always grumble most.

Laugh and keep young.

Happiness stands beside the ugly.

A good memory is not equal to bad ink.

With money―a dragon; without it―a worm.

He who has his back to a draught has his face to the grave.

Be quick over your work, but not over your food.

He who will only mount a unicorn will never ride a horse.

If you suspect a man, don’t employ him; if you employ him, don’t suspect him [Confucius].

Men grow old and pearls yellow. There is no cure for age.

When a man is at peace, he is silent; as level water does not flow.

It is not the wine which makes a man drunk: it is the man himself.

Whispered words are heard afar.

Ripe melons drop without plucking.

Better a dog in peace than a man in war.

The faults which a man condemns when out of office, he commits when in.

Losing money is begotten of winning.

One needn’t devour a whole chicken to know the flavour of the bird.

There’s sure to be fuel near a big tree.

Man combs his hair every morning. Why not his heart?

There is no thief like a family of five daughters.

There is something to be learnt from every book.

The sky covers no man in particular.

Dogs do not object to poor masters.

Have no friends not equal to yourself.

The tusks of the elephant are its own undoing.

The tongue is a sharp sword which slays though it draws no blood.

One man makes a road and another walks on it.

Don’t break a vase for a shy at a rat.

Every one gives a shove to the tumbling wall.

Sweep the snow from your own doorstep.

You can’t chop a thing as round as you can pare it.

One jibbing horse throws out the troop.

All language is not in books, nor all thoughts in language.

The men of old see not the moon of to-day; yet the moon of to-day is the moon that shone on them.

He who rides a tiger, cannot dismount.

A stupid son is better than a clever daughter

Politeness before force.

Life feeds upon adversity and sorrow. Death comes amid pleasure and repose [Mencius].

If you can’t draw a tiger, draw a dog.

One dog barks at something, and the rest bark at him.

You can’t clap hands with one palm.

Cleanse your heart as you would cleanse a dish.

All that a man needs in this transitory life is a splint hat and a rice-bowl.

A pretty woman entering a family has the ugly ones for her foes.

He who has seen little is astonished at much.

Shoes for the same foot must be worn by different people.

Draw your bow, but don’t shoot.

One more good man on earth is better than an extra angel in heaven.

Don’t take a pole-axe to kill a fowl [Confucius].

Don’t make dumplings in a teapot.

Good or bad, ’tis the wine of my country.

The virtuous man is his own arbitrator:
The foolish man carries his suit into court.
Man’s heart is like iron:
The law like a smelting-furnace.

In the market-place, money; in solitude, peace.

One man spreads a false report and a hundred report it as truth.

Gold is tested by fire; man, by gold.

The influence of good is all too little. The influence of bad is all too much.

Man dies and leaves a name. The tiger dies and leaves a skin.

Those who have not tasted the bitterest of life’s bitters, can never appreciate the sweetest of life’s sweets.

An angry fist cannot strike a smiling face.

It takes a rat to know a rat.

Extraordinary men are ordinary to God.

Man dreads fame as a pig dreads fat.

Wine can both make and mar.

You can’t get ivory out of a dog’s mouth.

He who is first is prince. He who comes after is minister only.

New-born calves don’t fear tigers.

Money makes a blind man see.

For every man that Heaven creates, Earth provides a grave.

Man is God upon a small scale. God is man upon a large scale.

A near neighbour is better than a distant relation.

Women share adversity better than prosperity.

If a man keeps his mouth shut, his words become proverbial.

You can’t wrap fire in a paper parcel.

Intimate talks leave us few friends.

Without Error, there could be no such thing as Truth.

Note.Sir E. J. Reed, in his work on Japan, quietly includes as specimens of Japanese proverbs, etc., well-known quotations from Mencius and other Chinese authors, the truth being, of course, that all the high-class literature of Japan, its art, and its civilization, are essentially of Chinese origin.

[Since writing the above paragraph in 1883, I have met with similar instances in overwhelming number. See “The XIX Century and After,” February, 1905.]