1. The old man lost his horse
Japanese: 塞翁が馬 sai-ō-ga-uma
Chinese: 塞翁失马 sài-wēng-shī-mǎ
Korean: 새옹지마 se-ung-ji-ma
Meaning: a setback can turn out to be a blessing in disguise
Once upon a time in Ancient China, there was a man who everybody called Sài Wēng 塞翁. One day, his horse ran away and he was really upset, but then after some time, his horse came back, and brought with it an even better horse. Lucky, right?
2. To paint a snake and add legs
Japanese: 蛇足 da-soku
Chinese: 画蛇添足 huà-shé-tiān-zú
Korean: 사족 sa-jok
Meaning: to ruin something by doing something unnecessary or superfluous
Once upon a time, a man in Ancient China, let’s call him John for the sake of the story, entered a snake-painting competition. Within five minutes, John painted a stunning picture of a snake and was sure no one would be able to beat him. After seeing that everyone else was still painting, John, decided to pass the time, and added four little legs to his snake. Needless to say, John, having now painted a lizard, lost the competition for his stupidity.
Japanese: 矛盾 mu-jun
Chinese: 矛盾 máo-dùn
Korean: 모순 mo-sun
Meaning: a contradiction
Once upon a time, a weapon salesman in Ancient China went to the market shouting, “Come buy my spear, special price, today only! This spear can pierce any armour, and any shield! And here I have the world’s strongest shield; it can’t be pierced by any arrow, sword, or spear”. Some people saw the ‘contradiction’ in his claims, and began to use the word ‘矛盾’ to describe just that: a contradiction.
4. ‘Chu’ songs from all directions
Japanese: 四面楚歌 shi-men-so-ka
Chinese: 四面楚歌 sì-miàn-chǔ-gē
Korean: 사면초가 sa-myoen-cho-ga
Meaning: to be surrounded by obstacles on all sides with no one to turn to for help
In the year 202 BC, the Chǔ city of Gāixià 垓下 was surrounded by the Hàn army. At night, the leader of the Hàn army ordered his men to sing songs at the Chǔ army, not just any old songs though; songs from the Chǔ kingdom in the native Chǔ language. The sound of these songs made the soldiers of the Chǔ army feel homesick, and they couldn’t help but join in with the singing and no longer wanted to fight. The moment that the Chǔ leader heard the sound of these songs from all directions, he realised that the battle was over and he was defeated.
5. A frog in a well has no idea of the expanse of the ocean
Japanese: 井の中の蛙 i-no naka-no kawazu
Chinese: 井底之蛙 jíng-dǐ-zhī-wā
Korean: 정저지와 jeong-jeo-ji-wa
Meaning: to be naïve and ignorant of the wider world
There was once a little frog who had lived her whole life in a well, and one day a turtle turned up and told her about the wonders of the open ocean. The frog had never seen the ocean, and her mind was totally blown at the idea that anything could be better than the well, and so she vowed never to return to the well again.
5. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step
Japanese: 千里の道も一歩から senri-no michi-mo ippo-kara
Chinese: 千里之行始于足下 qiān lǐ zhī xíng shǐ yú zú xià
Korean: 천리길도 한 걸음부터 qenligil-do han geoleum-bute
Meaning: great success is an accumulation of smaller successes
This is a good one to tell yourself in the morning after you’ve got out of bed, brushed your teeth, had a shower, and got dressed; you’re already well on the way to a successful day! Well done!
6. No matter how good you are, there is always someone better
Japanese: 上には上がいるもんだ ue-ni-wa ue-ga iru-monda
Chinese: 人外有人，天外有天 rén wài yǒu rén, tiān wài yǒu tiān
Korean: 뛰는 놈 위에 나는 놈 있다 dui-neun num uei-e naneun num itda
Meaning: there are always more talented people in the world than yourself
These three phrases are a little different in each language, but all have the same basic meaning. Japanese: there are always people higher than those above you. Chinese: there are people beyond people, and heavens beyond heavens. Korean: above those who run are those who fly.
7. If you don’t enter the tiger’s cave, you can’t catch the tiger cub
Japanese: 虎穴に入らずんば虎子を得ず koketsu-ni hairazunba koji-o ezu
Chinese: 不入虎穴，焉得虎子 búrù hǔxuè, yān dé húzǐ
Korean: 호랑이 굴에 들어가지 않고는 호랑이를 잡을 수 없다 horangyi gur-e deu-oegaji anko-neun horangyi-reur jabeursu ebda
Meaning: nothing ventured, nothing gained
You can’t really argue with this logic; I personally wouldn’t have the foggiest idea how to get a tiger cub without venturing into a tiger’s cave.
9. The weak are meat for the strong to eat
Japanese: 弱肉强食 jaku-niku-kyō-shoku
Chinese: 弱肉强食 ruò-ròu-qiáng-shí
Korean: 약육강식 yang-yuk-gang-sik
Meaning: it’s a dog-eat-dog world; survival of the fittest
There is no story to this one. If you are weak, you are meat for those stronger than you to eat. Simples!
10. When entering a village, follow the local customs
Japanese: 郷に入っては郷に従え gou-ni itte-wa gou-ni shitagae
Chinese: 入乡随俗 rù xiāng suí sú
Meaning: when in Rome, do as the Romans do
The Japanese and Chinese versions of this are similar to each other, but Koreans actually tend to use an expression similar to the English one: 로마에 가면 로마의 법을 따라야 한다 roma-e gamyoen roma-ui boeb-eul ddaraya handa – “When in Rome, follow Roman laws”.