May 03, 2012 | Myrna Anderson

Larry and Qin Herzberg's new book contains the proverbs of Chinese sages and everyday folk—and a few of spurious origin.

“A fox isn’t aware its tail stinks”
“The foolish old man moved the mountain.”
“A closed mouth keeps flies from flying in.”

As translated by Asian language professors Larry and Qin Herzberg, the three proverbs quoted above mean the following, respectively:

“People often cannot see their own shortcomings”
“Anything can be done if you work long and hard enough at it.”
“If you keep your mouth shut, you can’t get into trouble.”

The three Chinese proverbs are among the more than 500 in the couple’s new book, Chinese Proverbs and Popular Sayings. The book offers insight into a fund of traditional wisdom that dates back 2,500 years: “Every Chinese person knows these sayings,” Herzberg said. “The Chinese use these all the time.”

Herzberg compared everyday Chinese speech with that of America, where the use of proverbs has declined: “People from two, three generations ago and more use expressions like ‘A stitch in time … ,’ ‘A penny saved … ,’ Herzberg said. "But people your age and mine rarely use those because it's too clichéd."

The Chinese, however, habitually sprinkle their speech with proverbs, said Herzberg, and they do not consider a Chinese speaker eloquent who does not regularly use proverbs: “Your speech is considered to lack flavor,” he explained.

Old man loses horse ...

Chinese proverbs—both the scholarly sayings of sages like Confucius and Lao Tze and the sayings of common folk—come from that culture’s tradition of shared stories. “They've remained in the culture because they're taught from parent to child or from one person to another,” Herzberg said.

The use of proverbs makes Chinese speech efficient, Herzberg said: “They’re able to sum up in just a short phrase … often just eight words, what it would often take a paragraph or more to explain.” Typically, the Chinese abbreviate the proverbs further, using them as a form of shorthand, he said: "The Chinese have this proverb that goes back before the time of Christ that says: "The old man on the border loses a horse." It's based on an ancient story, the gist of which is ‘Every cloud has a silver lining.’ The Chinese simply say: Old man loses horse. Nobody has to say the whole proverb to make the meaning clear," Herzberg said.

He and Qin hope that Chinese Proverbs and Popular Sayings will give readers a glimpse into Chinese culture. Each proverb in the book is translated first literally, then poetically: “The foolish old man moved the mountain” means “Anything can be done if you work long and hard enough at it.”

Each proverb is also represented in Chinese characters, Herzberg said. “And then, if there is a similar proverb in English, we give that as well.” He offered an example from the collection: “We say, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day.’ The Chinese say, ‘A fat person doesn’t get fat with just one bite—literally one mouthful.’”

May you live in interesting times

The proverbs in the book are organized by themes: Learning; Patience and Perseverance; Humility and Contentment; Talking; Morality; Money; Conformity; Age; Time; Friends; Family; Women; Fate; Animal Metaphors; Food; Miscellaneous Favorite Sayings; Proverbs that May Sound Familiar to English Speakers; and Sayings Attributed to the Chinese—Rightly or Wrongly.

Herzberg explained the last category: “There’s so much accumulated Chinese wisdom that even when a proverb isn’t attributed to the Chinese we attribute it to them.” As an example of this phenomenon, he quoted the saying “May you live in interesting times,” which is often described as an “ancient Chinese curse.” “It’s not a Chinese proverb,” Herzberg said. “It’s from some speech made by one of our ambassadors to China.”

Each themed category is prefaced with a reflection on how that group of proverbs reflects a Chinese worldview. (The introduction to the Food chapter, for instance, claims that no other culture is as food-obsessed as the Chinese: “What other major language says hello by asking, ‘Have you eaten?’”)

The source for much of the material in Chinese Proverbs and Popular Sayings was Qin who learned Chinese proverbs from her mother, a writer: “My mother taught me how to succinctly sum up a complex situation with an appropriate proverb, instead of rambling on in a verbose way,” Qin remembered. “She would effortlessly quote sayings from both classical Chinese and old colloquial sayings in just one sentence if doing so would help her to make her point more forceful or more vivid and colorful.”

Her mother’s use of proverbs gave her a valuable moral education, Qin said. “I learned how the adults in my culture viewed the world, what behavior was considered moral, proper and right, and what actions were regarded as base or shameless.” She regrets that her mother, who died three weeks ago in Beijing, did not live long enough to see the book.

Remember when

The Herzbergs originally wrote the book as a resource for their students, to give them an expanded view of Chinese culture. They then decided to write a book that would appeal to a non-Chinese-speaking audience as well. “It works for people who know Chinese language and for people who don’t know a word,” Herzberg said. With this book, as with all their books, the couple hope to educate more than a scholarly audience about China.

“We want to understand a culture through its language,” Qin said. “Often, at the end of that journey, we find that we have come full circle and realize that we understand the language much better through our deeper understanding of the culture.”

Also, Herzberg added, Chinese proverbs are fun: “Beyond the joy of saying something succinctly, it’s like shared stories in a family. You know what it’s like when you say, ‘Remember when Aunt Betsy… ,’ and the family knows exactly what you mean?” he said. “And the Chinese are a family of 1.4 billion people today.”

Larry and Qin Herzberg have also authored Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar and China Survival Guide: How to Avoid Travel Troubles and Mortifying Mishaps. Larry , a past winner of the Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching, was recently named the new director of the Hubers Asian Studies Program.

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