Short answer: It’s probably best for Westerners not to try to out-proverb the Chinese, especially when speaking with Premier Wen Jiabao.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has just passed through China, and she displayed a propensity to throw Chinese proverbs into her public statements, exclaiming at one point: “I love Chinese proverbs!”
She tossed out her first Chinese proverb before even departing on her weeklong trip, and in some ways it was apt.
In a speech on U.S.-China relations to the Asia Society on Feb. 13, Clinton used the aphorism, tongchuan gongji, which means roughly “when on a common boat, cross the river peacefully together.” The proverb was made famous in “The Art of War,” the book by the ancient philosopher and military strategist Sun Tzu. Most listeners probably got the gist of what Clinton was seeking to say: The United States and China have common problems and should work together.
Like most Chinese proverbs, this one contains four characters (and four syllables) but is loaded with historical and literal meaning.
It alludes to an episode when combatants from the warring states of Yue and Wu found themselves in the same boat on a river in a storm. Despite their hatred for each other, they agreed to lay down their weapons for the common passage.
The problem with the proverb is what historians say happened afterward: The king of Yue went on to destroy the Wu. They remained foes to the very end.
I don’t think Clinton meant to evoke the sense that the common cause between China and the United States was only temporary, and that one side would eventually vanquish the other.
On Saturday, she visited a power plant in Beijing and talked at great length about climate change and efficient energy usage. At the end of her talk, out popped another Chinese proverb: linke juejing, which means “before you are thirsty, dig a well.” She used it in the sense that China and the United States must act together to combat global warming.
An hour or so later, Clinton met with Premier Wen. According to the Xinhua news agency, Wen reminded her of the proverb she used in New York.
"As the world is faced with the grim impact of the financial crisis, I very much appreciate a proverb you quoted that all countries should cross the river peacefully as they are in a common boat," Wen said.
Then Wen popped a proverb back at her: xieshou gongjin, which is also taken from Sun Tzu.
"Another saying in the book goes 'progress hand in hand,'" Wen told Clinton.