Unable to see the mountain in front

When an old year ends and a new one begins, we will be bombarded by newspaper leader writers, life coaches, church pastors and other obnoxious professional busybodies (excluding prostitutes) urging us to reflect on our mistakes in the past 12 months and to make new resolutions for the next 12 months.

Resolutions are just good intentions and as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with them. Since no one likes the idea of going to hell, let’s stop making resolutions. Instead, let’s pick some really useful proverbs as our moral compass to provide a clear guide to right action.

The trouble with proverbs, however, is there’re too many of them, and many are merely cleverly-worded remarks describing human actions and consequences, often with an undertone of sarcasm. Take for instance this saying that when the roof leaks, it rains all night 屋漏偏逢连夜雨. Well, this proverb is just a description of life’s hard luck. There’s nothing to learn from this and other similar observations.

What we want, therefore, are proverbs that offer practical tips and some strategy to avoid getting into trouble or to ride out difficult times.

I was fortunate to grow up in a large house in Chinatown, among many relatives. Whenever there was a loud, heated discussion (all adult discussions seemed loud and heated when I was a small boy), every speaker would buttress their point of view with a fusillade of witty idioms and proverbs.

To my impressionable mind, several of the proverbs used by my grownup relatives struck me as sensible and appropriate to the argument at hand. Over the years such proverbs have stayed with me as invisible guides. When I’m faced with making tough decisions in perplexing situations, one or two maxims would pop up in my head, helping to clarify my thoughts and see the way ahead.

It doesn’t mean that I have always been making smart choices but at least I like to think that I didn’t make too many stupid ones.

Here are some practical proverbs (complete with the Chinese text and pronunciation) that you too can benefit from:

有眼不识泰山 youyan bu shi taishan

Having eyes but not seeing Mount Tai. The mountain refers to  individuals who are clearly seen to have great potential. But since we do not know exactly which young person we met could turn out to be the next Obama, we have to treat all young people with respect.

My own practice is to regard any student I meet as potential Taishan. They may lack experience but their idealism, energy and can-do attitude are more than enough to enable them to take over the world.

静以修身 jing yi xiu shen

Quiet thoughts mend the body. Don’t  wait till the start of a New Year to reflect on your deeds and misdeeds of the old year. A good strategy is to do it at the start of every new day. Wake up early and sit for 30 minutes quietly in reflection and meditation. Think of where you have succeeded and failed, and what you ought to have done right but forgot to do.

A quiet time each morning is a great way to de-stress and mend your body.

灯不拨不亮, 理不辩不明 dēng bù bō bù liàng, lǐ bù biàn bù míng

An oil lamp becomes brighter after trimming, an idea becomes clearer after being discussed. When facing a complex issue, discuss it with a friend or friends. Different perspectives from other people help you clarify the difficulty and arrive at a more effective solution.

The equivalent English idiom is “two heads are better than one”, but bear in mind that too many cooks spoil the broth. The trick is to find the optimal number of thoughtful people for discussion, brainstorming and problem-solving. My personal experience is that the most productive group is made up of just three people.

一日之计在于晨 yī rì zhī jì zài yú chén

A day’s planning is all done in the morning. Planning doesn’t require much time, but that ounce of effort put into it usually saves a ton of trouble later.

Take, for example, a drive to an unfamiliar place. Checking the street directory and drawing the quickest route on a piece of paper take no more than 5 minutes and results in a trouble-free trip. Sometimes, though, when I am in a hurry, I would skip this step and ended up driving in a vague general direction, taking a longer time to reach my destination.

So, in any non-habitual task (such as attending a job interview, giving a talk on stage, or going on a vacation), a little planning, checking of information and some rehearsals go a long way.

此地无银三百两 cǐ dì wú yín sān bǎi liǎng

There’s no 300gm of silver at this spot. Don’t use a clumsy lie to deny what everybody already knows. I suppose the proverb could also imply that we shouldn’t waste time and effort denying something that has been scientifically proven. It reminds me of creationists denying the truth of evolution and still proclaiming that their god made the world in six days.

When in doubt, stick to scientifically-proven methods. We know vaguely that traditional Chinese medicine may be good for our body when we are healthy and fit. But when we are sick, we want to see a Western-trained medically-qualified physician, not a sinseh. We want to take Western drugs and get high-tech Western medical treatment to cure us as quickly as possible.

哑巴吃饺子,心里有数 yǎba chī jiǎozi, xīn lǐ yǒu shù

When a mute 哑巴 eats dumplings 饺子, he knows how many he has consumed, although he cannot speak. This saying refers to someone who knows the situation well but is keeping mum. Don’t ignore or overlook the quiet people particularly in the workplace. Remember, still water runs deep!

君子之交淡如水 jūnzǐ zhījiāo dàn rú shuǐ

The friendship of a true man or junzi 君子 is tasteless as water. Unlike friendship based on playing golf or politics, you can’t get secret benefits out of friendship with sincere, upright people. Don’t expect the junzi to give you good grades (when you didn’t study for your exam), whisper tips on stocks to buy, provide a job recommendation or put in a good word on your behalf with influential people!

Does it means there are no benefits in hanging out with true gentlemen? Of course not. Junzi are intelligent, thoughtful, compassionate people. You can depend on them to provide you disinterested opinion and moral advice when you need it because they care sincerely for the inner wellbeing and happiness of others.

Personal collection

Over the years I’ve gathered a number of genuinely useful proverbs from all kinds of sources, to prevent me from hurting myself or hurting others, and to be contented with who I am (near the bottom of the food chain) and what I have (not much). Here’re some random examples that I managed to retrieve from the frontal lobe of my brain:

Even if you have won the rat race, you’re still a rat (from a whiskey ad, encouraging us to pull out from the mad striving, and enjoy life while we can)

When your horse died, get down and walk (old Chinese proverb quoted by a former classmate after his business went under, and he had to travel by public bus because his BMW was re-possessed)

Happiness is an eternal tea pot (says Thomas de Quincey, which has continually motivated me to make aromatic tea to drink nonstop whenever I wanted to do something cerebral)

You can teach old dogs new tricks (me quoting myself now that I’m old but still wanting to learn new skills like wrestling with crocodiles or climbing K2)

May not all your prayers be answered (again me quoting myself after experiencing regrets when I got what I wanted)

You are your own best friend; if you don’t treat yourself well, no one else will (from a movie which title I’ve forgotten)

Without cash, everything is hypothetical (instruction that my father drilled into my cranium on the joy of saving and not spending)

Without cash, be polite (no, not from my father, but from a collection of Danish proverbs; smart chaps, these Danes)

Only a fool tests the river with both legs (Nigerian proverb which cautions me not to throw all my savings into unproven investment scams, I mean, schemes, like sub-prime mortgage financial instruments; as I was reminded time and again by my Dad, “If it’s too good to be true, it is.”)