A few years ago, I discovered a publication with a title that immediately captured my atten­­­tion: Everything I Understand about America I Learned in Chinese Proverbs, by Wendy Liu. As I had been pondering my own oeuvre for quite some time, I found it very appealing to call it Everything I Understand about Relationships I Learned in Chinese Proverbs. Although it would have been an extraordinary tag line, I quickly gave up this idea, for two main reasons: First and foremost, the contrast between the two countries (America and China) so cleverly highlighted in the former title, is not an is­sue in the present blog; and second, it would have been a massive exaggeration to say that Chinese sayings taught me “everything” about relationships between men and women. Given the complexity of the matter, it would be counter-productive to ignore all the other sources of knowledge and experience that allow me, day after day, to have a better grasp of all the factors that play a role in the stimulation and the sustainment of attraction and desire. Finally, I also found out that it would be too ambitious of an endea­vour to cover everything about relationships (love, romance, conflicts, jealousy, communication, etc.). Instead, I decided to focus on sexual aspects, discussing topics such as mate selection, lust, seduction, promiscuity, adultery, and many others.

At any rate, it is undeniable that Chinese proverbs have indeed had a positive effect on this learning process, which for me started many years ago. But before I illuminate the reason(s) why I chose maxims[1] of this particular language and culture, I wish to invite the reader to take a closer look at the word “proverb”, using the definition as coined by the famous pare­miologist[2] Wolfgang Meider:

“A proverb is a short, generally known sentence of the folk which contains wis­dom, truth, morals, and traditional views in a metaphorical, fixed and memo­rizable form and which is handed down from generation to gene­ra­tion.”[3]

I would like to emphasise three basic elements that may help justify the use of such epi­grams when trying to explain and exemplify difficult concepts (including the human libi­do):

  • Conciseness: Proverbs generally employ rhetorical or grammatical and designs, such as ima­gery, rhyme, repetition of key words, parallel structure, etc. This generates the simple and figurative, yet expressive, character of a proverb that makes it easy to re­member;
  • Truth: The message conveyed in adages verbalises a basic fact or practical precept that people can utilise in typical life situations;
  • Common experience: Due to their frequent and widespread use, proverbs are “folk wisdom” and can, therefore, be considered as an important element in the identifi­cation and definition of cultures. As such, they tell much about values and norms (including virtues, sins, vices, “good and evil”), rules (i.e., the proper or expected ways of doing things), or simply people’s traditional ways of experiencing reality.

In this regard, China and its language[4] are particularly well adapted for cunning proverbs. The fact alone that its writing system is made of ideograms (instead of letters combined to form words) makes it quite an efficient and dense language in terms of meaning. In­deed, a Chi­nese character (or sinograph) is usually part of a polysyllabic word, or may even con­sti­tute a word on its own. Furthermore, as it is itself composed of parts that may corres­pond to phy­sical objects or abstract notions (sometimes elements of pronunciation), every spoken syl­lable is attached to a basic meaning. Thus, such a logosyllabic system can significantly shor­ten the pronunciation time and the space required to put down elementary ideas. In addition, Chinese proverbs are often constructed elliptically, i.e., one or more words are deliberately omitted from a clause for the sake of obscurity or economy of expression. For example, the idiom “杯水车薪” (bēi shuǐ chē xīn) can be translated as “trying to put out a burn­ing cart­load of faggots with a cup of water” and refers to an utterly inadequate measure or at least a minor remedy to a major problem. As one can see, the original version, which liter­ally means “cup water cart firewood”, does without any verb and takes only four syllables to be articulated (compared to nineteen in the English version). Many Chinese say­ings are out­spokenly crisp, packing more depth per word (or stroke) than any other form of locution in any other language to my knowledge. Admittedly, the use of the ellipsis may ob­scure the pri­mary meaning and leave room for misinterpretation. However, in the case of sayings, this risk is certainly attenuated by their popularity and frequent utilisation.

One should furthermore bear in mind that the Chinese civilisation was formed 5000 years ago. Al­though not all proverbs are as old, many of them have survived several centuries of oral consignment. How is it possible to ignore such a long history and not pay tribute to Chinese values, as reflected in their folk wisdom? For an epigram to have persisted in usage for 500 years implies that it contains a strong element of truth.

One final interesting aspect of Chinese sayings is that they tend to come with several lay­ers of depth. While the superficial message becomes apparent quite immediately with the imagery or narrative, the more profound meaning(s) can be discovered after reading the pro­verbs a second or a third time, analysing each of its components and peeling the con­struct down to its essence. Although I will not carry out such exercises in this blog, it can still be quite an entertaining and inspiring process.

Instead, the objective of this work is to provide lessons and instruction, helping people to apprehend love-related feelings and motivations. For that matter, I researched and collected a number of Chinese maxims (as well as a few quotations from books) with a particularly high didact­ic value. If the objective is achieved, readers will not only find these proverbs interesting but also understand why I selected a particular saying to describe one particular kind of situation. In case the occasion presents itself and the reader faces a similar circumstance as one of those described in the blog, he or she will be able to reflect on it, ap­ply in his or her own life, and learn from the experience, hence becoming a better person.

Likewise, mottos may also be referred to when communicating about a specific issue. Some­times, it can be difficult to describe character traits, a human condition or one’s own mood or state of mind (e.g., after a victory or a disappointment from a close friend). Instead of explaining everything in a lengthy fashion, you can just mention the appropri­ate aphorism, and your interlocutor will understand the meaning immediately and with a few sylla­bles or words only. This can also be helpful on other occasions, for instance when declaring love to someone, motivat­ing a friend, or warning one’s children against bad encounters. The simple ability to utter the right proverb at the right time in the right situation can leave a durable impression on people, generating great admiration and sympathy for the originator. As the main character in the film Amélie (Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain in French) says, “a person who knows proverbs can’t be all bad”[5].


Notes

[1]    For the sake of writing style and as a way to avoid repetitions, words as “saying”, “maxim”, “adage”, “motto”, “epi­gram”, “aphorism”, “locution” will be used as synonyms of “proverb”, despite some slight differences or nuances between each term.

[2]    “Paremiology” is the study of proverbs, and should not be mistaken for “paremiography”, which is the collecting of proverbs.

[3]    Meider (1993)

[4]    In reality, there is not only one Chinese language, but seven, respectively fourteen (by convention), for example, Guan (or Mandarin), Wu (which includes Shanghainese), Yue (Cantonese), and so on. Every reference to the Chinese language in this book shall be interpreted in Mandarin (官话, guān huà).

[5]    Original: “Une personne qui connait bien les proverbes ne peut pas être mauvaise.”

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