Classics Culture Idioms

A Chinese idiom about making the right choice – 选择 (xuǎn zé)1 min read

28 February 2021 < 1 min read


A Chinese idiom about making the right choice – 选择 (xuǎn zé)1 min read

Reading Time: < 1 minute

The word for ‘choose’ in Chinese is 选择 (xuǎn zé).

The traditional character for zé is 擇, and the bits that make up this character give insight into the Chinese understanding of what a choice is. Starting from the top right, the character is composed of a plate (皿), and the character for ‘lucky’ (幸 = earth 土 + sheep 羊 with one less line). So, having land and livestock and the means to feed oneself is a definition of good fortune in Chinese thinking.

The important part is on the left: 扌, which means ‘hand’. This means action is needed. In other words, in order to get want we need to take action.

China’s philosophers have talked for millennia about making the right choices – prioritising where to put focus in order to achieve long-term happiness and success, even if this means short-term discomfort.

One of the best Chinese idioms that describes this, in the words of Mencius (孟子 – Mèngzǐ), or his mother actually, is:

断杼择邻 – duàn zhù zé lín (“cutting the yarn and choosing the right home”)

According to legend, when the young Mencius asked his mother why they kept moving house (they moved three times), his mother responded by cutting a piece of yarn to show that it could no longer be woven into cloth: moving house was no excuse to stop studying, in fact the purpose of moving was to find the best environment to support study.

Making the hard choice but the right one: short-term discomfort for long-term gain.

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