"The old man at the pass loses his horse"

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For many years, Melinda Takeuchi, professor of Japanese art history at Stanford, regularly competed with horse and carriage in combined driving events.  Here's an example of what the sport looks like.

Not long ago, her carriage driving days came to an abrupt end due to an accident, which she describes thus:

I had a horrendous carriage wreck a couple of years ago — 5 dashing deer spooked my horse and she bolted. carriage flipped. i was life-flighted to stanford emergency where they discovered 8 broken ribs and a malignant cyst in the pancreas. by one of those crazy serendipitous miracles, the cancer was discovered in time to blitz it. so i survived against all odds, but my daredevil days are over. thank the goddess for horses in these days of shelter in place.

Melinda's harrowing tale matches one of the most famous Chinese set phrases (chéngyǔ 成語, often misleadingly called "idioms"):  sàiwēngshīmǎ 塞翁失馬 ("the old man at the pass loses his horse", i.e., "blessing in disguise").

A fuller expression of the phrase reads thus:

sàiwēngshīmǎ yān zhī fēi fú 塞翁失馬焉知非福

Google Translate (GT) gives this funny translation for the long version:  "Seeon loses his mind".  That really did make me chuckle, though I sympathize with GT, since asking Mandarin translation software to comprehend Classical Chinese would be like tasking Modern English translation software with making sense of Beowulf.  It's interesting, though, that GT gets the perfect gist of the shorter version:  "blessing in disguise".  It says nothing about an old man losing his horse at the pass, which is the literal meaning of the expression, but it understands the deeper meaning.

How is that possible?  It's simply because "sàiwēngshīmǎ 塞翁失馬" ("the old man at the pass loses his horse", i.e., "blessing in disguise") has been borrowed into Mandarin as a unit, virtually as a quadrisyllabic word or term.

As for the meaning of the second half of the expanded version of the set phrase, viz., yān zhī fēi fú 焉知非福, it is "how could you know it is not a blessing?"

If I ask GT to translate "And there are no territorial limits to the reach of habeas corpus articulated in the text" into German, this is what it will give me:  "Und der Reichweite des im Text artikulierten Habeas Corpus sind keine territorialen Grenzen gesetzt."  The software does not attempt, nor need, to translate "Habeas Corpus" into German because this is an English Latinate legal term that has been borrowed into German.

To fully understand a Chinese set phrase (chéngyǔ 成語) like sàiwēngshīmǎ 塞翁失馬 ("the old man at the pass loses his horse", i.e., "blessing in disguise"), one should know the historical context, i.e., the story or account recorded in the ancient text where it first occurred.  In the present instance, that would be this tale from the Huainan Zi 淮南子 (before 139 BC):

Fū huòfú zhī zhuǎn ér xiāngshēng, qí biàn nán jiàn yě.

Jìn sāi shàng zhī rén yǒu shàn shù zhě, mǎ wúgù wáng ér rù hú. Rén jiē diào zhī.

Qí fù yuē:`Cǐ hé jù bù wéi fú hū?'

Jū shù yuè, qí mǎ jiāng hú jùnmǎ ér guī. Rén jiē hè zhī.

Qí fù yuē:`Cǐ hé jù bù néng wéi huò hū?'

Jiā fù liáng mǎ, qí zi hào qí, duò ér zhé qí bì. Rén jiē diào zhī.

Qí fù yuē:`Cǐ hé jù bù wéi fú hū?'

Jū yī nián, hú rén dà rù sāi, dīng zhuàng zhě yǐn xián ér zhàn, jìn sè zhī rén, sǐzhě shí jiǔ, cǐ dú yǐ bǒ zhī gù, fùzǐ xiāng bǎo.

Gù fú zhī wèi huò, huò zhī wéi fú, huà bù kě jí, shēn bù  kě cè yě.


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It can be difficult to foresee the twists and turns which compel misfortune to beget fortune, and vice versa.
There once was a (father), skilled in divination, who lived close to the frontier (with his son). One of his horses accidentally strayed into the lands of the Xiongnu, so everyone consoled him.
(But) the father said, “Why should I hastily (conclude) that this is not fortunate?”
After several months, the horse came back from the land of the Xiongnu, accompanied by another fine horse, so everyone congratulated him.
(But) the father said, “Why should I hastily (conclude) that this can not be unfortunate?”
His family had a wealth of fine horses, and his son loved riding them. One day (the son) fell off the horse, and broke his leg, so everyone consoled (the father).
(But) the father said, “Why should I hastily (conclude) that this is not fortunate?”
One year later, the Xiongnu invaded the frontier, and all able-bodied men took up arms and went to war. Of the men from the frontier (who volunteered), nine out of ten men perished (from the fighting). It was only because of (the son's) broken leg, that the father and son were spared (this tragedy).
Therefore, misfortune begets fortune, and fortune begets misfortune. This goes on without end, and its depths can not be measured. (Wiktionary translation)


People use set phrases much less frequently nowadays than they did a hundred years ago.  One reason is that they are no longer so well educated in classical learning, so they don't know the literary allusions that provide the background for the set phrases, or, putting it in the obverse, they no longer evoke the historical contexts whence they emerged.  Another reason is that the entire style of writing shifted from Classical / Literary to Vernacular a hundred years ago, for which see:

Carlos Yu-Kai Lin and Victor H. Mair, ed.  Remembering May Fourth:  The Movement and its Centennial Legacy.  Series:  Ideas, History, and Modern China, Volume 23.  Leiden:  Brill, March 2020.


Selected readings


  1. ktschwarz said,

    May 3, 2020 @ 12:37 am

    I've heard of "The old man lost his horse" (it's one of the more likely chengyu for English speakers to have heard of), but in this day and age it's remarkable to find an illustration of it that involves a literal horse! Thanks for sharing that.

    Digression on der Reichweite des im Text artikulierten Habeas Corpus…: I don't know enough German to be sure, but this sounds off to me, since it has "articulated" attached to "habeas corpus" instead of "limits"; that is, it parses the English as "no territorial limits to the reach of [habeas corpus articulated in the text]", when it should be "no [territorial limits to the reach of habeas corpus] articulated in the text". Can any German speakers help out here? The English sentence is grammatically ambiguous, so the translator has to judge what was articulated — another example of the challenge of translating from a less grammatically explicit language to a more grammatically explicit one that David Moser discussed a few days ago.

  2. M. Paul Shore said,

    May 3, 2020 @ 2:12 am

    ktschwarz: I'd actually been contemplating writing a post along the same lines as yours, except that my first reaction to the original English passage was that "articulated" seemed to apply to "reach". I now agree that your interpretation that "articulated" applies to "no territorial limits" is the most likely one; but I also think we'd need to see some surrounding sentences, perhaps even the whole article or chapter that the sentence is from, to be certain.

    I'd be interested to hear from some native German speakers whether "artikulierten" and "territorialen Grenzen" are genuinely good word choices here; and also whether there'd be some advantages to replacing this sentence's "Habeas Corpus" with the semi-assimilated "Habeaskorpus".

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    May 3, 2020 @ 6:53 am

    There are quite a few similar expressions in English, like "down the rabbit hole", from Alice in Wonderland, or "the dog that didn't bark", from Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of Silver Blaze.

  4. John Swindle said,

    May 3, 2020 @ 10:27 am

    It's possible that for Google Translate "habeas corpus" in this instance means "chunk of something weird." If we ask it to translate "And there are no territorial limits to the reach of orpus articulated in the text" into German we get "Und der Reichweite des im Text artikulierten Orpus sind keine territorialen Grenzen gesetzt."

  5. Alyssa said,

    May 5, 2020 @ 5:13 pm

    Re: "they don't know the literary allusions that provide the background for the set phrases"
    – Do set phrases usually disappear as their reference becomes forgotten? English has plenty of such expressions that I don't think the average person could explain these days – "down the rabbit hole" being a good example.

  6. John Rohsenow said,

    May 6, 2020 @ 11:07 am

    This Chinese expression always calls to my mind the English expression
    "('It's) an ill wind" not b/c it means the same thing, but b/c it is an somewhat archaic expression which some people still use, but are never quite sure of its meaning. We are told that this is a shorter version of: "'it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good', apparently from before 1546, and is also interesting in that it has shifted it meaning over time, from its original meaning of "a wind that was unlucky for one person would bring good fortune to another,…frequently been invoked to explain good luck arising from the source of others' misfortune", to its later meaning (in Sir Walter Scott) which is clearly the opposite of the old proverb, that is, a wind that didn't provide benefit to someone would be a bad and unusual one indeed. (see https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/ill-wind.html)

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