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The Art of the Proverb

HillaryBJ Here’s a lesson on when to use Chinese proverbs and who to use them with.

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.


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Shi Weidong

Re mmk's comment of "trying to explain the significance and meaning of Chengyu to the western mind is dui niu tan qin" is improper on several levels. First, equating a "western mind" with that of cattle is amusingly rude. Second, are only "non-western mind[s]" capable of understanding references laden with significance and meaning? Perhaps a "wenmingde" (civilized) explanation (and apology) for why this isn't racist is in order.


Welllll, one should REALLY take some deep look into the history book, especially what happened between the Yue and the Wu state and the end of it all. And then you will realize, using that proverb is well.... haha not so good an idea. Kind like that big bell China gave to UN office in NY a few years back. Oh the wonder of Chinese language and allusions hehe.


Trying to explain the significance and meaning of Chengyu to the western mind is dui niu tan qin.

Tim J

Ah yes! "Holding an axe up before the God of carpentry." Well put.


"It’s probably best for Westerners not to try to out-proverb the Chinese" You've got that right! Heed your own words and stop Ban Men Nong Fu.


It is not a proverb. It is called "ChengYu". Proverbs are closer to "YanYu". It is not idiom either. A Chengyu is usually formed with 4 characters (though, does not have to be), carries with it a deep meaning illustrated by an ancient story behind it. Also it usually is first used by a prominent scholar. A Yanyu, is usually told in layman's language, and the meaning is usually apparent from the words. The following sentence tells the difference: "Tian yao xia yu, niang yao jia ren, shi yi ju xing rong wu ke nai he qing xing de yan yu" -- 'the sky is to rain, mother is to remarry' is a proverb to describe the situation that you can do nothing about. Here "wu ke nai he" is a chengyu.

So in the conext, it is "Tong Zhou Gong Ji", although "zhou" and "chuan" mean the same thing, you cannot replace "zhou" with "chuan" in this chengyu. The deep meaning is teaching people to put aside their petty differences in front of a big common problem. Even people from Wu and Yue can do it, why can't you? There is no intention of referring to Wu and Yue's continued struggle in any way. So reading it that way, is why you guys figured everything wrong. "ban ping zhi chu".


Frenchmen aren't going to be happy about this.



By the way it is "Tong Zhou Gong Jin", not "Tong Chuan Gong Jin".

John Yang

This is too much to dig in. It's a word Chinese used often, nobody would think that way. I won't say nobody would talk about it that way, but it must be minority and it is meaningless.

Jake Schmidt, NRDC

This is an extremely positive step on global warming as these two key players are critical to move the world away from the brink and towards a sustainable path. While no details were released on the key actions that will be undertaken in this dialogue, it will be essential that this dialogue not simply result in vague declarations, press releases, and photo-ops.

NRDC released a set of nine recommendations in advance of Secretary Clinton’s trip that could form the basis of the ensuing work. They are available here: http://tinyurl.com/af5fvw. These actions will need to be initiated quickly if we are going to turn the corner on global warming.

We need these two countries to come together quickly if we are going to be successful in getting a strong international agreement in Copenhagen and strong actions to cut global warming pollution in the years to come.


Same bed, different dreams. :)


Woodinville, Washington

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"China Rises" is written by Tom Lasseter, the Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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