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

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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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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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