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
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
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?
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?