Do You Believe Every Chinese Idiom Has 2 Sides?

Chinese proverbs and idioms distribute old knowledge that has stood the test of time. Many consider them to be absolute truths, or at the very least very compelling words of wisdom, and they are frequently employed to establish a point or used as grounds to win debates. The wonderfully timeless Chinese language has cooked up countless idioms to serve the many thousands of years of Chinese history. Despite having so much time and wisdom pass before the civilization’s eyes, there have been a few contradictory idioms. How do we choose the idiom that is the most truthful?

Read these 2 and form an opinion then read on to see if your opinion holds true until the end.

Chinese carved cinnabar lacquerware, late Qing dynasty.

chū  yū    ní   ér    bù    rǎn           jìn  mò  zhě  hēi
出     淤   泥   而   不    染    vs.     近   墨    者    黑

出淤泥而不染 (chū yū ní ér bù rǎn): originally describes how lotuses can emerge from the mud without being tainted by it. As time passed, its meaning evolved to mean praising the virtue someone lives or grew up in bad surroundings but has not been degraded by it.

●出淤泥而不染 (chū yū ní ér bù rǎn)
1.(lit.) to grow out of the mud unsullied (idiom)
2.(fig.) to be principled and incorruptible

近墨者黑 (jìn mò zhě hēi): literally “proximity to ink makes you black”. The full idiom is “近朱者赤, 近墨者黑 (jìn zhū zhě chì, jìn mò zhě hēi) what’s next to cinnabar turns red, what’s next to ink turns black”. It is a metaphor for being around good people having a good influence, and being around bad people having bad influences.

近朱者赤, 近墨者黑 (jìn zhū zhě chì, jìn mò zhě hēi)

●近墨者黑 (jìn mò zhě hēi)
1.Those who handle cinnabar are stained red; those who work with ink are stained black (idiom)
2.You are the product of your environment

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Raw, uncut cinnabar mined in Xiangxi, Hunan, China.

But these 2 contradicting idioms beg the question. Which wins? Nature or nurture?
先天与后天 (xiān tiān yǔ hòu tiān) innate and acquired

Nature is what we think of as pre-wiring and is influenced by genetic inheritance and other biological factors. Nurture is generally taken as the influence of external factors after conception, e.g., the product of exposure, life experiences, and learning on an individual.

In the field of child development, there has been a constant nature versus nurture debate among professionals. While nature is the genetic predisposition or biological makeup of an individual, nurture is the physical world that influences nature.

For example, when a professional athlete has a child that also becomes a professional athlete, is that nature or nurture. Was the athletic ability passed genetically through birth or was it a behavior learned through countless hours of repetition and practice.

Duì  yú  nǚ  hái  hé  nán  hái  zhè  liǎng  gè  shè  huì  jué  sè  de  xíng  chéng  hé  chā  bié,
对    于   女   孩   和    男   孩    这    两   个     社   会    角  色   的   形      成    和   差    别,
xué   jiè  shǐ  zhōng  cún  zài  zhe  xiān  tiān  jué  dìng  lùn   (huò  jī  yīn  jué  dìng  lùn)
学    界    始     终      存     在    着    先   天    决    定     论  (或   基    因    决   定    论)
yǔ  hòu  tiān  jué  dìng  lùn   (huò huán jìng jué dìng lùn)   de   zhēng   lùn.
与    后     天    决     定    论  (或  环   境    决    定     论)   的     争     论。
An ongoing debate about the influences of nature versus nurture in shaping the behavior of girls and boys raises questions about whether the roles played by girls are the result of inborn differences or socialization

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The way in which children are treated as they are growing, especially as compared with the characteristics they are born with.

Jiào  yù, péi  yǎng;  (yóu zhǐ)  hòu  tiān  yǎng  yù
教   育,  培     养;(尤 指) 后   天   养      育
Education, training; (especially) nurturing

Nǐ  rèn  wéi  nǎ   gè   yīn   sù   duì   hái   zi   de   chéng   zhǎng   yǐng   xiǎng
你    认   为   哪    个   因    素    对    孩  子   的      成       长         影         响
zuì   dà  ——  xiān   tiān   tiáo   jiàn   hái   shì   hòu   tiān   jiào   yù?
最    大  ——   先    天      条      件    还     是     后     天     教     育?
Which do you believe has the strongest influence on how children develop – nature or nurture?

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xìng   gé     běn    xìng
性      格,   本       性
nature: a person’s character

Zhū   lì   ān   nà   xiǎo  shí  hòu  de  xìng  gé    fēi   cháng  nèi  xiàng.
朱    丽   安  娜    小     时    候    的    性     格    非      常     内     向。
As a child, Juliana had a very interverted nature.

Tā   shēng   xìng   lǎn   duò.
他      生      性      懒      惰。
He is by nature inclined to be lazy.

It’s good to note that cinnabar is essentially mercury and is the historic source for the brilliant red or scarlet pigment we now call vermilion. What makes cinnabar so perfect for this idiom debate is that ​​it has been in use in China since as early as the Yangshao culture, where it was used in coloring stoneware between 5000-3000 BC. It’s absolutely beautiful and has been used in makeup, jewelry, clothes, art, clothes, and burial ceremonies. However, cinnabar is extremely toxic with over-exposure. It gives a whole new meaning to “近朱者赤, 近墨者黑 (jìn zhū zhě chì, jìn mò zhě hēi)”. And the same way the lotus flower breaks out of the water totally unscathed by the mud, it could not grow in the first place without the mud. If there are dark and troublesome elements within yourself or surrounding yourself, what will the outcome be? There is a lot to think about there.

Whether or not you grew from a mud situation or were exposed to too much cinnabar or ink, the moral of the story is your upbringing may determine the outcome more than the surroundings. Which idiom are you more familiar with and which do you think holds more ancient Chinese wisdom?

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