The story behind the idiom "A loss, no bad thing" in Chinese "塞翁失马,焉知非福"

In ancient times, there was an old man lived in 塞北. One day, one of his horses run over the Great Wall to their enemies Hu (胡人).
 

The folks came and comforted him, he said "Well, this is not necessarily a bad thing."
 

A few days later, his lost horse led a group of Hu's horses back. And then the folks came to congratulate him, but this time, the old man thought it might be a bad thing.
 

The old man had many good horses, and his son loved riding since he was a child. One day, his son broke his leg when he was riding the horse of Hu. Then, the folks came again to comforted him, well, the old man thought it might be a good thing this time. A few days later, his son avoided entering the war because of his broken leg.
 

The Chinese-English dictionary gives the explanations about this idiom "塞翁失马,焉知非福 sài wēng shī mǎ, yān zhī fēi fú" as below:
1. A loss, no bad thing.
2. A loss may turn out to be a gain. (sometimes bad things can be turned into good things in a certain condition.)
 

翁:wēng, old man
失:shī, lose/fail/miss
焉:yān, how (an ancient Chinese word)
知:zhī, know/realize
福:fú, blessing/good fortune
 

Feel free to make 1 or more sentences with this idiom, I'd love to get feedback.
Cheers! :)

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Teacher
Comment by Shu on May 16, 2012 at 1:31pm

You are very welcome :) Your Chinese is perfect, I am wondering did you major in Chinese? I would love to know your story of learning Chinese! Have a good week!

Comment by ZhongwenMovies on May 16, 2012 at 12:43pm

不能改變的事何必擔心呢? 人生無常﹐世事難料吧!  L-/

Thanks for your encouragement and kind words, Shu.


Teacher
Comment by Shu on May 14, 2012 at 7:13pm

ZhongwenMovies,

 Your website is excellent with a lot of movie info :)

There is another passage from Zhuangzi also has similar meaning --

安危相易,祸福相生,缓急相摩,聚散以成。《庄子?则阳》

Safety and danger alternate with each other; good fortune and bad fortune interchange with each other; fastness and slowness succeed each other; collection and dispersion are related to each other.

Life is full of uncertainty, and that is what makes it interesting and unique. Just like movies :)

Welcome to the club.

Comment by ZhongwenMovies on May 14, 2012 at 12:28pm

非常喜欢这个成语故事,心情不佳的时候总是会想到它。

意思呢正如老子说的「福兮祸之所倚,祸兮福之所伏」吧。(Fortune and misfortune are two buckets in a well.) 也就是说,好的坏的, 自古以来都存在, 一千年以后也会存在。 这才是人生。

Another translation I like is "When the old man from the frontier lost his horse, how could one have known that it would not be fortuitous?" because I think this illustrates 焉 is "how" and that 「塞翁失马, 焉知非福」 is actually more of a rhetorical question than direct statement.

Seraph 提到的「塞翁得马,焉知非祸」 这个相反的说法真有意思,谢谢分享。


Admin
Comment by Seraph Ching on May 11, 2012 at 1:14pm

The middle part of the story:

A few days later, his lost horse led a group of Hu's horses back. And then the folks came to congratulate him, but this time, the old man thought it might be a bad thing.

The old man had many good horses, and his son loved riding since he was a child. One day, his son broke his leg when he was riding the horse of Hu.

This is called "塞翁得马,焉知非祸“, the opposite meaning. However it's much less used.


Top Member
Comment by Zhang Wenzhuo on April 8, 2012 at 11:47am

Hi, Thomas

Thanks for sharing. The Google translation about 焉 is just for the idiom 塞翁失马焉知非福,most of time it just means “how”. For example, "不入虎穴 焉得虎子bú rù hǔ xuè   yān dé hǔ zǐ ", this idiom means if you don't go to the tiger's den, how would you get the tiger cub. Here 焉 means "how".

The sentence you made in your second comment is great, there is no need to make any corrections.

I knew 因祸得福 and 塞翁失马焉知非福 have the same meaning, but I didn't know the story behind 因祸得福, so I searched the Baidu, it turns out that 因祸得福 is derived by 塞翁失马焉知非福,they have the same story.


Top Member
Comment by Thomas Doherty on April 7, 2012 at 12:15am

My sentence using " a blessing in disguise " ::

  我被迫退休,并学习中国的语言,焉知非福。

 Wǒ bèi pò tuìxiū, bìng xuéxí zhōngguó de yǔyán, yān zhī fēi fú.

 I was forced to retire, and learn the Chinese language, blessing in disguise.

  I also notice that Google Translate has 因祸得福  ( yīnhuòdéfú ) which means " from disaster get blessing " as also meaning " a blessing in disguise " .


Top Member
Comment by Thomas Doherty on April 6, 2012 at 11:43pm

Google Translate says that both phrases 塞翁失马 and 焉知非福    mean " a blessing in disguise ".  Just putting a space behind the 焉 YAN character gives " how to know the blessing " in Google Translate and the phrase 翁失马  gives " old man lost horse ".  Interesting to see how it all is related to this story.


Top Member
Comment by Zhang Wenzhuo on April 5, 2012 at 11:54am

Hi, Kevin

Thanks for the support, and your sentence is pretty good:) Keep it up.

Comment by 凯文 on April 4, 2012 at 4:38pm

so just to pass a light comment on a life event to cheer someone up you could say - 

"dont worry its a blessing in disguise really"  you could just say -  不要担心!是塞翁失马

Thats a really nice phrase to remember! 

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