大器晩成 (たいきばんせい) – “Genius matures late”

The Japanese expression 大器晩成 (たいきばんせい – taiki bansei) is used for people who achieve success later in life


The world-renown Japanese painter Hokusai created his, perhaps, most famous painting, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, in his early 60s. He changed his name four times and kept reinventing his style his entire life.

Although he gained fame early on in life, he truly blossomed in his autumn years. On his deathbed at 88, he reportedly exclaimed, ‘If only Heaven will give me just another ten years … Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.’

The Japanese expression 大器晩成 (たいきばんせい – taiki bansei) is used for people who achieve success later in life. It is credited to the Chinese sage Lao Zi, who is traditionally considered to be the mastermind behind Tao Te Ching, one of Taoism’s most revered texts.

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The origin of the Japanese word keizai (経済 ‘economy”)


No, you won’t see this yojijukugo in common use, but it is the one that a the Japanese, Korean, and Chinese word for economy 経済, is thought to derive from.

When Japan opened to the rest of the world in mid-19th century, it had to learn to communicate a lot of new things. Despite the thousands years of both inherited Chinese and indigenous Japanese scholarship, Japanese at the time lacked words to convey many concepts. Names for new objects as well as for abstract ideas had to be invented. In those days, the Japanese did not rely as much on katakanese, so they put their minds to make up new kanji-based words. Most of times,  those would  be very clever renderings of the meanings deciphered from European words and then reassembled  in Japanese. For example, the word for society, shakai, would be made of two characters 社会 meaning “gathering in/around a Shinto shrine”, which rather neatly and with a hint of metonymy gets across how the contemporary Japanese would envision ‘society’. Swap the characters, and we got 会社 kaisha, “company” or “firm” (by the way, both société in French).

Economy in the sense of a discrete domain, (egregiously) thought to exist independently of everything else, such as society, environment, or psychology, is a relatively new way of thinking about the relations between money, commodities and labour. It was novel to the 19th century Japan (and, granted, just barely established in the West too). Understandably, there was no corresponding Japanese word for it. So Meiji intellectuals, well versed in Classical Chinese, digged out a wise maxim 經世濟民 keisei-saimin from The Book of The Master Who Embraces Simplicity, a 4th-century treatise by Ge Hong, a Jin Dynasty official.

The meaning of  the phrase can be interpreted  as “keeping the world in order will help out the people”. This idea shows a strong influence of the Chinese political concept of the Mandate of Heaven with its insistence that “moral government brings peace to the country”). That kind of understanding echoes well with the parallel, much later Western concept of political economy: every political decision will have economic repercussions (i.e., the  prosperity of the population).

Ancient Greeks, to whom we trace the two words, thought of them as separate domains. Politics was the matters of the polis, whereas economy was to do with the oikos, home affairs. The wise man was to keep the twain asunder.

Bizarrely enough, despite centuries of effort in political and social theory, the modern practice is still more in  line with that archaic separation of the domains. The latter-day Neo-Classical theory, the dominant one in policy making worldwide, understands economy as a self-contained entity. Its success is judged by arbitrarily chosen quantifiable attributes, such as growth, controlled inflation and an infinitely expanding slew of other numerical meta-entities. Everything else  – environment, society, psychology, humanity itself  –  is treated as “externalities“, well worth sacrificing to keep the basic economic indicators within the range considered desirable  (a.k.a. #GoodForTheEconomyShitForThePeople). That makes it possible, for example, for the Economist to comment gleefully and sincerely on Pakistan’s economic growth while the country was devastated by floods. The same kind of thinking governs the global development industry, bringing the never-ending misery to the Third World.

It is exactly the opposite of the spirit of the original Chinese expression that gave birth to the word 経済. Will economics ever manage to overcome this pernicious misunderstanding?

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花鳥風月: the beauties of nature

花鳥風月  literally means “flowers, birds, the wind and the Moon.” In the Tang Imperial court of China, whence the Japanese picked up their penchant for such four-letter words (四字熟語), nature appreciation was a big thing. After all, it was the early centuries of the Common Era and, in the absence of TV, internet and pachinko parlours, the only competitors to admiring the beauties of nature would be sex and, for the educated, books.

We rarely think this way, but for the most of us, everything around us, every single thing is man-made. Even trees in the park are planted there and the water in river is pollution-controlled and partly comes from sewage-processing plants. The nature on the other hand, is just-so. It happens there without anyone’s apparent will, yet it organises itself into ridiculously complex ecosystems, as if by chance. Human intrusions upon that marvelous order are like encroachment on a beautiful, elaborate building by increasingly smart, malicious mould that leaves mostly toxic waste and destruction in its wake. Even such beautiful excuses for progress and development as some architecturally fascinating cities and towns, ultimately are festering ulcers on the body of our planet. A particularly poignant example of such  human activity is the Tokyo Olympics 2020 site next to which the largest ongoing man-made disaster, the Fukushima Nuclear Plant keeps dumping lethal radioactivity into the Pacific Ocean and East Japan’s densely populated areas.
So, enjoy your 花鳥風月, while they are still around.

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喜怒哀楽 – Human emotions, which ones are desirable?

喜怒哀楽 kidoairaku “joy, anger, sorrow, and pleasure”.

Recently I attended a talk by an American anthropologist Melissa Caldwell, where, inter alia, she shared her observation that Russians consider experiencing the whole range of emotions from suffering to joy as natural for human beings, while for Americans being always happy is the desired objective.

For me, the latter has a lot to do with the technologies of the self of the Neo-Liberal subject: our life objective is assumed the be the relentless pursuit of happiness (a nod to the Founding Fathers), where we would strive for perfection in every aspect of our lives. It should be rather self-evident that such a unrealistic goal-posting is a recipe for disaster: if a basic acquaintance with how the human nervous system works (it naturally operates in up-ad-down cycles  and prolonged periods of either negative or positive stimulation wearing it out) is not enough, the 21st century’s boom in anti-depressant consumption should confirm that the pressure to be always happy achieves exactly the opposite.  

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浅からず深からず : interested but not involved

浅からず深からず – Asakarazu, fukakarazu.

Technically, this is not a four-letter compound, although it can be written as such, kango-style, 不浅不深 (please correct me, if necessary, I’m not big on kango). I heard it some 20-odd years ago, when a Japanese girl I knew told me that the best way to keep relationships with people is “not too shallow, not too deep”. Coming from a culture where it’s all about emotional extremes, that came across cold and indifferent to me. Not any more though, as life experience has taught me that to enjoy earthlings the best, you ought to keep them at a healthy distance.
There’s another Japanese saying to that effect: 附かず離れず (tsukazu hanarezu), “no attachment, no detachment”. It popped up in an interview I made with a 70-year-old Japanese man in Bangkok last winter. After meditating on the two above sayings as a kind of koan for a while, I had a minor epiphany, triggered by accidentally revisiting the famous talk Krishna gave Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Ghita: “Stay interested, but not involved. There’s nothing about this world that is real.” My own insight was that “interested” is exactly the Middle Path, my dear majjhima, between being indifferent and being too involved.

As usual, the truth is in the middle, just ask those mysterious, exotic and oh so wise Orientals. 🙂

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井底之蛙: why frogs do not fly

Once they asked a frog who lived at the bottom of a well, ‘Would you like to fly in the sky?’

‘Why the fuck would I want to do that?’ quoth the amphibian. ‘Your sky is the size of a handkerchief!’ 

井底之蛙 – jǐng dǐ zhī wā, “frog at the bottom of a well”.

“In the sky full of people, only some want to fly, isn’t that crazy?”


More articles like this: 四字熟語- ancient wisdom in four-letter maxims

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弱肉強食: “survival of the fittest”

弱肉強食 (jakuniku kyōshoku)

Is Leben really a Kampf? Should we cull out the low-earners annually? Who will eat the strongest once they are too fat?

The proverbial “survival of the fittest”, the Neo-Liberal rallying cry
meant to justify every minor and major dastardly policy, in Japanese sounds
even juicier: “The weak are the meat for the strong”. That said, it’s no match
for my Dad’s laconic French, ‘in life you either fuck or get fucked’.

More articles like this: 四字熟語- ancient wisdom in four-letter maxims

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晴耕雨読:the joys of country life

晴耕雨読 (seikō udoku): “Till the land when the sky is clear, read a book when it rains.” For those aware of ancient history, this would surely remind of the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s retirement plan. After a career of feeding Christians to lions, introducing prostration as the form of greeting the emperor, and a slew of very savvy administrative reforms, he retired to blessed Dalmatia (now part of Croatia) to grow cabbages. When appealed by his subjects to return to the throne and fix the crumbling empire, he reportedly replied: ‘If you could show the cabbage that I planted with my own hands to your emperor, he definitely wouldn’t dare suggest that I replace the peace and happiness of this place with the storms of a never-satisfied greed.’ That uncool verbosity could have been avoided though, had he have a smattering of Chinese or Japanese:’晴耕雨読, innit!”.

More articles like this: 四字熟語- ancient wisdom in four-letter maxims

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Four-letter words are not always foul language: 四字熟語 and 成語

Chinese for Japanese is what Greek and Latin are for European languages or Sanskrit is for Thai and Malay: the source of a high, abstract vocabulary as well as, with a due bit of curiosity and intellectual effort, access to the wisdom of the ancients of the “Confucius say” fame.

One part of that ancient Chinese heritage are yoji-jukugo (四字熟語), delightfully laconic idioms that express very complex ideas or metaphors in mere four characters.  Using the same model, the Japanese have later come up with their own indigenous yoji-jukugo, just as succinct and sagacious as the 成語 (chéngyǔ) borrowings from China.
Quite a few of them are included in the national school curriculum and thus effectively are part of the daily vernacular. Every once in a while I post the juiciest and intellectually aesthetically striking ones here: 四字熟語/成語, so that you too can drink from that refreshing font of timeless wisdom. 

P.S. The Thai language also has a similar concept, where a four-letter, essentially four-word set expression represents a graphic metaphor, a moralistic proverb or a witty allegory. There’s a plethora of such in Thai but one that springs to mind first is บ้านนอกโคกนา (ban nok khok na), literally meaning “the countryside: a chicken coop and a rice field”, a both nostalgic and slightly pejorative description for where most people in this rapidly urbanising nation come from.

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