Eighteenth-century European sources for some Chinese proverbs

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Jan Söhlke was intrigued by the issue of fake Chinese proverbs that had come up in some recent Language Log posts. That reminded him of the time when he was preparing his MA Thesis he stumbled across an unusual selection of Chinese proverbs. His thesis is on Wilhelm Raabe's novel Das Odfeld.  As a motto Raabe uses a quote from a text by his own grandfather, August Heinrich Raabe, that appeared in a journal called the Holzmindisches Wochenblatt (Holzminden Weekly) back in 1787.  As Jan was leafing through the journal, he noticed a group of Chinese proverbs. It struck him as a bit odd, so he made a copy.  Unfortunately, at the time he did not own a digital camera nor did he have a cell phone with camera, so he had to type them by hand.

Jan found it curious that even in 1787 people apparently found the exotic so compelling that they disguised something very Prussian / Protestant ("get up early and get something done!") as Chinese wisdom, or so it seemed.

Thus it appears that the cottage industry in fake Chinese proverbs by no means began in the 20th century.  Here are six that were published in the Holzmindisches Wochenblatt (Holzminden Weekly) dating to 1787, first in rough English translations, then in the original German:

Chinese Proverbs

1. Of ten thousand not one dies of poison, yet simply mentioning it fills us with horror. How many people die of excess, yet how little does one fear it.

2. Entertain him who failed at something not with the happy success of your own enterprises.

3. In society guard your tongue, in solitude guard your heart.

4. The faster one wishes to untangle a thread, the more one tangles it.

5. When a family gets up early in the morning, infer that the house is governed very well.

6. We have three kinds of mirrors. First the one women use for grooming. Second, the books containing the history of men. Lastly the people themselves from whose acts one learns what one should do.


Chinesische Sprichwörter

1. Von zehntausend kommt nicht einer durch Gift um, und doch erfüllt uns die bloße Erwähnung desselben mit Schrecken. Welche Menge Menschen raft die Unmäßigkeit hin, und doch wie wenig fürchtet man sie!

2. Unterhalte den, dem etwas mißlungen ist, nicht mit dem glücklichen Erfolge deiner Unternehmungen.

3. In Gesellschaft bewache deine Zunge; in der Einsamkeit dein Herz.

4. Je eiliger man einen Strang Zwirn entwkeln will, desto mehr verwirrt man ihn.

5. Wenn eine Familie des Morgens früh aufsteht, so mache den Schluß, daß das Haus sehr wohl regiert wird.

6. Wir haben dreyerley Spiegel. Erstlich den, dessen sich das Frauenzimmer bey seinem Putze bedient. Sodann die Bücher, worin die Geschichte der Menschen enthalten ist. Endlich die Menschen selbst, aus deren Handlungen man lernt, was man thun soll.

Holzmindisches Wochenblatt, 28 (1787), p 652-653.

Preserved in Landesarchiv Wolfenbüttel.

Quick comment from a German friend:

It strikes me as rather odd that I have never heard any of these proverbs.  If they are German, Bavaria was its own kingdom in those days, perhaps they came from there?

The only one similar to what I've heard is the one with the "zwirn", a la haste makes waste.  I think if they were Prussian they'd be far more direct.

From Urs App:

The source of this is not 1787 but earlier, and not German nor Prussian. In German it seems to have first appeared in the Hannoversches Magazin, 4. Jahrgang of 1766, published in 1767. There (p. 143) it specifies that it is a German translation of an English publication of 1761: “Aus einer 1761 zu London 4 B. in 12 herausgekommenen Samlung (sic) von Chinesischen Originalstücken”, which means that a small format (in-12) four-volume collection of Chinese original texts was published in London, 1761.

The Hannoversches Magazin (p. 143-144) gives translations of a total of 11 “Chinese proverbs”; the ones you list as 1 is no. 5, your no. 2 is Hannover no. 2, your no. 3 is Hannover no. 4, your no. 4 is Hannover no. 6, your no. 5 is Hannover no. 11, and your no. 6 is not contained in Hannoversches Magazin. The rest are also quite interesting.

The English source appears to be the "Hau kiou choaan: or, The pleasing history : a translation from the Chinese language : to which are added : I. The argument or story of a Chinese play; II. A collection of Chinese proverbs and III. Fragments of Chinese poetry," ed. Thomas Percy. London: R & J Dodsley, 1761. Vol. 3, pp. 181-262 contains a "Collection of Chinese Proverbs and Apothegms”, according to whose advertisement “The Sentences are extracted from various Authors, but chiefly from those translations of Chinese Pieces, which P. Du Halde and the Missionaries have given us” (vol. 3, p. 183).

There’s a few hundred proverbs (p. 184 to 262), and the English translator explains on p. 262: “Although the marginal references in the foregoing sheets are made to the english folio version of P. Du Halde: yet many of the Proverbs are newly translated from the French original; that translation being very faulty.” He then gives a list of inaccuracies and of omitted parallels (p. 263-267). The parallels in the notes to the proverbs stem from various European languages; Thomas Percy appears to have had quite a good grasp of his subject.

Therefore, Victor, we end up once more with the Jesuits! Your six Chinese Proverbs in German of 1787 ultimately stem from an annotated English collection that was translated from French, and the French text is based on Chinese proverbs, classics, or Jesuit imagination (the sources which usually are specified in the 1761 collection are worth a look, as are the parallels).

The work in question is Hǎoqiú zhuàn 好逑傳 (customarily translated as The fortunate Union:  A Romance).

[Thanks to Heidi Krohne]



A young researcher of Chinese proverbs in Hong Kong, Lai Ka Yau, contributed the following notes:

I do think there is a string of truth to some of them, although I do not speak German and thus cannot take advantage of any nuances in the original German that may guide me in discovering the quotes' origins. The final one is clearly a translation of Emperor Taizong of Tang's hackneyed quote, '以銅為鏡,可以正衣冠;以古為鏡,可以知興替;以人為鏡,可以明得失。朕嘗寶此三鏡,用防己過。今魏徵殂逝,遂亡一鏡矣。' The translator took some liberties, but the core of the quote remained the same.

The first one is unfamiliar to me. The closest I can come up with is 火形嚴,故人鮮灼;水形懦,故人多溺, which also warns that things by which people are less frightened tend to be more dangerous.

Although I have never heard of the third one, it sounds very plausible to me because it follows the 入則___, 出則___ pattern found in many proverbs, such as 入則孝,出則弟, 出則事公卿,入則事父兄, 入則懇懇以盡忠,出則謙謙以自悔, etc. This one might be a misinterpretation of 入則心非, 出則巷議. 'Guard your heart' also sounds like something Mencius would say (e.g. 此之謂失其本心。 from 11.10).

The fourth reminds me of 欲速則不達, although I cannot say any more about it. The second and fifth are strange, but the former may be somewhat related to concepts like 隱惡而揚善, 無攻人之惡, and so on.


  1. AB said,

    June 5, 2015 @ 4:14 pm

    Seems like a game of Chinese whispers…

  2. K. Chang said,

    June 5, 2015 @ 5:41 pm

    The 4th one reminds me of that Chinese proverb about hair (which is actually implying feelings of confused love) but I can't seem to recall the exactly saying at the moment.

  3. K Chang said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 1:05 am

    Found it: 相見歡 作者:李煜



  4. K Chang said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 1:13 am

    Fifth one sounds like a badly interpreted version of a Confucious Disciple Saying: 修身齐家治国平天下

  5. Observation said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 7:34 am

    @K Chang's last post: And probably mixed with this:



  6. Victor Mair said,

    June 7, 2015 @ 8:25 pm

    From Cao Lin:

    I think the third one is really a Chinese proverb, which probably is “群处守嘴,独处守心。修己以清心为要,涉世以慎言为先." This proverb is still very popular nowadays. I'm trying to find out where it comes from— probably from Ming or Qing's Zhenyan(箴言) book, such as Caigentan(《菜根谭》), or just a common saying of no writing origin.

  7. Noah said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 4:54 am

    Great post and fascinating story!

    I had a similar question recently, to which I could not find the answer. Someone asked me to source the original for a Goethe quote they had in English. The English version (which is very popular on the internet) runs like this:

    "A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul."

    As is (very occasionally) cited, the quote is taken from Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, where, however, it looks rather different:

    "Man soll alle Tage wenigstens ein kleines Lied hören, ein gutes Gedicht lesen, ein treffliches Gemälde sehen und, wenn es möglich zu machen wäre, einige vernünftige Worte sprechen."

    Of course, I thought it was possible that he cannibalized this popular line somewhere else, adding a more pious ending for a popular audience. And, indeed, I was able to find the first (English) version in German, but it struck me as very suspect for two reasons. Here it is:

    "Der Mensch sollte an jedem Tag etwas Musik hören, etwas Dichtkunst lesen und ein schönes Bild betrachten, damit weltliche Sorgen in ihm nicht den Sinn des Schönen auslöschen, den Gott in die menschliche Seele gepflanzt hat."

    First of all, Google has all of two hits for this version, neither of which seems remotely reliable. And second, the beginning of the quote has also been changed, and not for the better: it is more repetitive (normally a no-no in German), blander, less concrete, and seemingly a bit archaising (Gedicht -> Dichtkunst).

    The reason I put this out there – possibly in the wrong place, but I'm commenting on Language Log for the first time – is because it seems to me that the following has happened: some early translator of Goethe added a sentimental, Victorian ending to the quote, making it extremely popular in America; due to its spread on the internet, it was then translated 'back' into German by some frustrated purveyor of kitsch who couldn't find the original.

    Any thoughts on this theory? Or ideas where the English version came from?

  8. Anthea Fleming said,

    June 12, 2015 @ 5:02 am

    I know they are not genuine – probably from Ernest Bramah's Kai Lung series -two 'Chinese' proverbs:

    Dragons in shallow water become the laughing-stock of shrimps.

    A toad has to pass a very severe examination in order to become a dragon.

  9. Observation said,

    June 14, 2015 @ 10:03 pm

    @Anthea Fleming: It's genuine. 龍困淺灘遭蝦戲,虎落平陽被犬欺, from 增廣賢文.

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