Chinese proverbs (諺語, yànyŭ) are an important aspect of Chinese culture and language. But what makes Chinese proverbs all the more extraordinary is that so much is communicated in so few characters. Proverbs generally carry multiple layers of meaning despite the fact that they are commonly only comprised of four characters. These short sayings and idioms each sum up a larger, well-known cultural story or myth, the moral of which is meant to convey some greater truth or provide guidance in everyday life. There are hundreds of famous Chinese proverbs from Chinese literature, history, art, and famous figures and philosophers. Some of our favorites are horse proverbs.
The Significance of the Horse in Chinese Culture
The horse is an important motif in Chinese culture and, in particular, Chinese mythology. In addition to the very real contributions made to China by the horse as a means of transportation to military power, the horse holds great symbolism to the Chinese. Of the twelve cycles of the Chinese zodiac, the seventh is associated with the horse. The horse is also a famous symbol within mythological composite creatures like the longma or dragon-horse, which was associated with one of the legendary sage rulers.
The Most Famous Chinese Horse Proverb
One of the most famous horse proverbs is 塞翁失馬 (Sāi Wēng Shī Mǎ) or Sāi Wēng lost his horse. The meaning of the proverb is only apparent when one is familiar with the accompanying story of Sāi Wēng, which begins with an old man who lived on the frontier:
Sāi Wēng lived on the border and he raised horses for a living. One day, he lost one of his prized horses. After hearing of the misfortune, his neighbor felt sorry for him and came to comfort him. But Sāi Wēng simply asked, “How could we know it is not a good thing for me?”
After a while, the lost horse returned and with another beautiful horse. The neighbor came over again and congratulated Sāi Wēng on his good fortune. But Sāi Wēng simply asked, “How could we know it is not a bad thing for me?”
One day, his son went out for a ride with the new horse. He was violently thrown from the horse and broke his leg. The neighbors once again expressed their condolences to Sāi Wēng, but Sāi Wēng simply said, “How could we know it is not a good thing for me?” One year later, the Emperor's army arrived at the village to recruit all able-bodied men to fight in the war. Because of his injury, Sāi Wēng's son could not go off to war, and was spared from certain death.
The Meaning of Sāi Wēng Shī Mǎ
The proverb can be read to have multiple implications when it comes to the concept of luck and fortune. The end of the story seems to suggest that every misfortune comes with a silver lining, or as we might put it in English-a blessing in disguise. But within the story is also the sense that with what at first appears to be good luck can come misfortune. Given its dual meaning, this proverb is commonly said when bad luck turns to good or when good luck turns to bad.