Chinese Proverbs


Tian gao, Huangdi yuan.

天高皇帝

 Heaven is high, and the Emperor is far away

Emperor Qianlong in his study. Painting by Giuseppe Castiglione; 18th century; The Palace Museum Beijing

Emperor Qianlong in his study. Painting by Giuseppe Castiglione; 18th century; The Palace Museum Beijing

This is the first Chinese proverb I ever heard used and completely understood;  and to my mind it encapsulates China and the way it is governed.

China is, geographically, a huge country with a huge population, and that makes it extremely challenging for any regime to govern it. For 2200 years it was governed by an Emperor and his minions, all of whom were based in the capital city. Since 1949 it has been a Republic, governed firstly by Mao Zedong followed by Deng Xiaoping and thereafter by the President and Prime Minister acting in concert with the Standing Committee, who are appointed by the Politburo, all of whom are also based in Beijing.

What the proverb means  is that if you are not geographically close to the center of government, you can do your own thing because the rulers are so far away that they will not know what you are doing. It can also be used to mean something as simple as walking on the grass when there is no park keeper to see you.

The first time I heard this proverb used was when I was in the far north west of China, and listening to a speech being made by the most senior local official at the opening of an art exhibition. He said that during the Mao years the works by the artists whose works were being exhibited were not in line with the ‘official’ laid-down guide-lines for Chinese art works. But he said they didn’t care because ‘the heavens are high and the Emperor is far away’, and he added, the same is true today.

Friends abroad often ask me why, if Chinese policy is that XYZ should happen and there are cases where it doesn’t, how come the policy is not enforced? and why people out in ‘the sticks’ ignore the dictats from Beijing and do what they want?..and the answer to these questions is this proverb.

One of the reasons I particularly like this proverb, and decided it should be the first of a series on Chinese Proverbs which I intend to post, is because it is utterly Chinese –  though I suppose the nearest English equivalent would be:  ‘When the cat’s away, the mice will play’

I must admit that the idea of posting a weekly item was really ripped off from inspired by two blogs I really enjoy reading:  Campari and Sofa (who post a Thought for the Week) and melaniejomoore (who posts a Cake of the Week) so a Big Thank you to them.  I suspect you would enjoy their blogs too.

About herschelian

Recently moved to Beijing from London - its all new to me! Trying to learn Chinese, and what makes this city tick.
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5 Responses to Chinese Proverbs

  1. Hari Qhuang says:

    I cannot wait for another proverb post! I love this! 😀

  2. Chris says:

    Helps a lot!

  3. Great post and so true, at least in our corner of China. My Mandarin teacher has shared many proverbs like this one…maybe I’ll write about them sometime too.

  4. camparigirl says:

    I totally support a weekly Chinese proverb. Please do! Even if often there is a Western equivalent to the sentiment behind it, they are much more poetic and less prosaic. And thank you for the shout out.

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