Saturday, November 19, 2011


The Chinese conception of truth differs from that prevalent in the West, where science is based on reason and numerical accuracy is sought. The ability to predict results and consistency of results are central principles in Western science. In traditional China the approach was different. The essence of Daoism and Buddhism is emptiness, which is intangible, inconceivable, unimaginable and immeasurable.

In the West there are defined laws of science which are based on truth. Dao, on the other hand, especially appreciates the temporary and transient, empty, undefined, ambiguous and hesitant. As opposed to Westerners, the Chinese deny the validity of an absolute truth in favor of a more flexible approach. The term "almost" or "approximately" (chà)(bu)(duō), appears constantly in the vocabulary of tradesmen such as carpenters, butchers, shoemakers, etc. There is a clear differentiation between the real and the ideal. As far as the Chinese are concerned, an absolute truth represents fantasy or imagination. Truth is subjective.

The Chinese are not direct in their speech. The language expresses their way of thinking. When they mean "very good" or "excellent", they will say (hěn)()(cuò), literally: very not bad.  Thus, when asked if they are interested in doing something, they will often answer, (ràng)()(kǎo)()()(xià), literally: let me think about it, in order to avoid a direct negative answer and to soften their reply. Telling the truth directly motivates direct action and does not leave a way out. The ensuing sense of compulsion further causes a loss of face, which is why it is to be avoided. This approach is illustrated in a story about a Chinese soldier who said to his enemy, "If you encircle us from all directions we will fight to the death, but if you leave us one open direction, we will escape".

The attitude of the Chinese toward truth is also expressed in the structure of words that are comprised of other, contrasting, words, in order to signify measure. Thus, the word (duō)(shǎo), which means "quantity" and "how much?", is comprised of the words  "many" (duō)and "few"(shǎo); the word "size"  ()(xiǎo) is comprised of the words "big" () and "small" (xiǎo),  "distance"  (yuǎn)(jìn) is comprised of  "far" (yuǎn)and "close" (jìn), etc.


Literally: Seeing once is preferable to hearing a hundred times.

Better see for yourself than hear from others.

In Hebrew:

לא דומה שומע לרואה (מכילתא, יתרו י"ט, ט)

He who sees does not resemble he who hears. (Mechilta, Jethro, 19, 9)

In English:

Seeing is believing

 This proverb originates in The History of Western Han (hàn)(shū),[1] where it was told that Emperor Xuan Di (xuān)() asked his general Zhao Chongguo (zhào)(chōng)(guó) how many battalions he needed in order to drive the barbarians away from the north. The general replied, "Seeing once is preferable to hearing a hundred times. A war is not a guessing matter. I must go to the front and see the area with my own eyes, in order to formulate a strategy".

The saying "One picture is worth more than a thousand words", is an erroneous translation of this Chinese saying.

The same idea is expressed in the idiom:
Seeing with your own eyes is preferable to rumor
What is heard [can] be false, [but] what is seen is real
On the other hand, there is the idiom:
What is seen is not [always] the real truth
Facts surpass eloquence
The [full] moon on the 15th of the 8th  lunar month
Said of things that are clear and obvious.
In English:
                                                              As clear as the sun in the summer sky  
*                                         *
Literally: Three coins are placed in two spots – one is one [and] two are two.  Matters are very clear.

When a person walks, he leaves traces [and] when a bird flies it leaves feathers
The truth cannot be hidden. Eventually it will be revealed.

One person spreads a lie, [and] ten thousand people spread it as truth
When the water is purified the stones are revealed
 When matters clear up the truth emerges. 

Literally: Three people create tigers.
This refers to three people who say that they have seen tigers, and since their story is told again and again, it is eventually believed.
One should beware of rumors. A lie that is told repeatedly is accepted as truth.  This is based on the following story:
During the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) Pang Cong (páng)(cōng), a minister in the State of Wei (wèi), said to the ruler of his state, "Someone said that he had seen tigers on the streets, do you believe this?" The answer of the ruler was negative. Then, Pang Cong said again, "Three people said that they saw tigers on the streets. Do you believe this?" This time the ruler's answer was positive. Finally, Pang Cong told him that there were no tigers on the streets and, therefore, one should beware of rumors. 

Cuts [his] feet to fit [his] shoes
Forces the facts to fit the argument.
This is based on the following story from the philosophical book of Huai Nan Zi (huái)(nán)(), which was published in 139 BCE by Liu An (liú)(ān) , the ruler of Huai Nan:
 Once there was a foolish man who went to buy shoes. The salesperson gave him a pair that was too small. The foolish man, instead of asking for another pair, attempted to cut his feet in order to make them fit the shoes. When he went to buy a hat, the first hat that he tried was too small and he attempted to cut his head to make it fit the hat.

Literally: Exposes the feet of the horse.
Reveals the true story.
Do not believe entirely in things and do not completely dismiss them

[1] Covering the history of Western Han from 206 BCE to 24 CE.

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