Two Thousand Zhuang Proverbs from China with Annotations and Chinese and English Translation

by Zhou Yanxian (Author)
©2017 Monographs 270 Pages
Series: International Folkloristics, Volume 11


China is home to one of the largest and oldest societies in the world, and presently contains fifty-six ethnic groups. Among them is the Zhuang, the largest of the minority populations, which partakes in a very long history of preliterate oral traditions. This volume presents an introduction to Zhuang language and culture in Zhuang proverbs. The two thousand proverbs explored in this text bear the weight of Zhuang history and culture, and embody the wisdom collected from publications, manuscripts, and the speeches of the people who live in Zhuang villages. These proverbs are grouped into nine sections: Truths; Morality; Family; Everyday Life; Social Life; Labor; Nature; Customs; and Politics. Together, they form an essential distillation of the Zhuang history, tradition, philosophy, and most importantly, its legacy. This accessible introduction – which includes translations in Zhuang Pinyin letters, Mandarin, and American English for each proverb – provides an important corpus for the study of the Zhuang ethnic group by scholars, students, and others who are interested in Zhuang language, culture, folklore and oral traditions, and proverbs.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Saeh Leix 事理 Truths
  • Chapter 2. Coih Ndang 修养 Morality
  • Chapter 3. Ndaw Ranz 家庭 Family
  • Chapter 4. Gwndaenj 生活 Everyday Life
  • Chapter 5. Doxgyau 社交 Social Life
  • Chapter 6. Guh Hong 生产 Labor
  • Chapter 7. Gwnzbiengz 自然 Nature
  • Chapter 8. Mbanj Ranz 乡土 Customs
  • Chapter 9. Haenh Guek 时政 Politics
  • Glossary
  • Notes
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii →


It is an honor to offer my preface to this superb collection of 2,160 Zhuang proverbs assembled by my colleague Zhou Yanxian, Ivy as she is known to us in the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition, with the assistance of her Chinese colleagues at the School of Foreign Languages, Baise University, and scholars in the United States and Europe. During Ivy’s yearlong residence in the Center, she has accomplished her objective of translating the Zhuang proverbs into English and compiling them with scholarly apparatus in this book. Let me review its contents before turning to proverbs and my experience of learning about Zhuang proverbs with Ivy.

Ivy’s introduction offers a comprehensive overview of the genesis of this monograph. She includes a definition of the proverb, a thorny matter, together with characterizations of proverbs’ various themes and functions, such as weather lore, agricultural practices, and ethical advice. She points towards the widely held tenet that proverbs constitute indices of a society’s worldview (Mieder and Dundes, 1994, x; Finnegan, 1981: 31, 34) and mirror cultural beliefs and expressions of attitudes related to festivals, customs, taboos, and religious rituals. She underscores how certain proverbs compress a complete anecdote or story into two concise balanced clauses (Abrahams, “Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions,” 120). If, as Ivy contends, Zhuang ← vii | viii → proverbs’ capacity to sustain longer phrases marks them as different from English proverbs, both exemplars make use of the poetics of parallelism and metaphor, hallmarks of the and essential components of proverbial speech among numerous human societies.

Ivy’s presentation, chosen from more than 11,000 proverbs in her 中国壮族谚语, a collection of Zhuang proverbs in China, is organized by first letter of the Zhuang proverb’s headword, followed by a Mandarin version, then an English translation with gloss. Each proverb is assigned to one of nine themes or abstract headings—Truths, Morality, Family, Everyday Life, Social Life, Labor, Nature, Customs, and Politics—though, as is to be expected, any given proverb may involve overlapping themes. Ivy suitably closes her introduction with acknowledgment of her mentors: pioneer Chinese scholars whose pathfinding work she and her team are carrying on and Professor Wolfgang Mieder, the world’s foremost living authority on proverbial speech. He is the author or editor of more than 150 books about proverbs as well as editor-in-chief of the journal Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship. Center for Studies in Oral Tradition staff, Christopher S. Dobbs, Kate S. Kelley, and Jennifer Spitulnik-Hughes consulted with Ivy on the English translations of her Zhuang proverbs, and Professor Anand Prahlad of the Department of English of the University of Missouri lent his expertise, too.

One year ago, during the first winter weeks of February, Ivy and I sat together discussing the proverbs and their translations, wrestling with how to best communicate their sense in English. At the time I imagined that we might succeed in getting a modest number satisfactorily translated, and I cautioned her that we could realistically hope to translate perhaps 500 proverbs. Undaunted by my misapprehension, Ivy worked steadfastly toward her more ambitious goal of 2,000 translations. As our weekly work sessions progressed, it became clear to me that, determined though she might be, for Ivy to reach her initial goal would require enlisting the aid of center staff, and I am proud to say they were equal to the day and stepped up with their assistance. Now, we have the result of their cooperative efforts: a superb sample of Zhuang proverbs available for the first time to Western scholars with the added value of their impending incorporation into the Matti Kuusi International Database of Proverbs (Lauhakangas, 2013).

Having helped Ivy with this project, I permit myself a few remarks about proverbs and translation, and, finally, suggest avenues for future research.

For a concise history of the proverb and proverb scholarship and a sample of proverbs from around the world, I turn first to the indispensable The Wisdom ← viii | ix → of Many: Essays on the Proverb (1994) edited by Wolfgang Mieder and Alan Dundes. The editors’ introduction identifies standard historical collections, describes proverbs’ sociological and psychological uses, and characterizes theoretical approaches to their study, logical, structural and semiotic, and phraseological.

Definitions of the proverb are, notoriously, too numerous to reward review, but an apt touchstone might be Ruth Finnegan’s formulation: “the proverb is a model of compressed or forceful language” (“Proverbs in Africa,” 11) imbued with an “incommunicable quality” (Briggs, 1988, 102). Underscoring the nature of proverbs as “quotations,” Mukarovsky characterized them as “quotations that are drawn from a body of speech that is both old and generally recognized for its truth or obligatoriness (1971:298, quoted in Briggs, 1988, 133).

The English term “proverb” is not, from a comparative viewpoint, apt for naming the wide variety of genres, terms, and purposes of the world’s stock of proverbial speech (Korom, South Asian Folklore, 42), a class of speech marked by “a terseness of expression […] different from ordinary speech and by a figurative model of expression abounding in metaphor” (Finnegan, 1992: 19). Indeed, a proverb is deemed to be authentic only with its acceptance by a given social group in the light of its “actual traditionality and currency” (Mieder, “Proverbs,” 525). The linguistic structure of the proverb has been described as “a traditional propositional statement consisting of at least one descriptive element—consisting of a topic and a comment—oppositional or non-oppositional” (Dundes, “On the Structure,” 60).

The challenge of translating proverbs from one language into another is made more difficult and exacerbated by the fact that without knowledge of cultural background or what something means to the person who utters the proverb it is “often impossible to grasp the point or attraction of a given proverb” (Finnegan, “Proverbs in Africa,” 25; Seitel, “Three Aspects,” 75).

The fundamental problem encountered in translation has been formulated in an elegantly simple statement by the linguist and anthropologist A. L. Becker: “The paradox of cross-cultural communication is but a magnification of the one we encounter in every day conversation: I am like you/I am not like you” (“Attunement: An Essay on Philology and Logophilia,” 370).

The linguist and cognitive scientist William Frawley observed that “translation” means “recodification,” though there can be no exactness in the recoding except “in all but rare or trivial cases” (“Prolegomena to a Theory of Translation,” 253). Frawley juxtaposes the standard measure of translation accuracy, “the fidelity of a new linguistic text to its ‘original’” (ibid., 260) ← ix | x → against his understanding that translation creates a third independent code, a unique sign-production which is not derivative (ibid., 261). In this view there is no transferable “semantic essence,” rather translation is a process of twin recoding: “The translation itself, as a matter of fact, is a third code […] a code in its own right […] which is both the bane and soul of the translator’s existence” (ibid., 257).

If translation is problematic, to understand the significance of a proverb requires identifying who spoke, to whom, when, where, and why must be ascertained (Mieder, “Proverbs,” 525). Galit Hasan-Rokem contends that with proverbs “meaning is universal, though the wording might not be” (Proverbs in Israeli Folk Narratives, 18). A sociolinguistic approach to the study of proverbs is appropriate in order to test their universality or cross-cultural meanings (Korom, South Asian Folklore, 43). Proverbs are “performances embedded in other interactions and produced informally” (Finnegan, Oral Tradition, 102), endowed with conative or didactic functions educating about the ways of life (Shuman and Hasan-Rokem, The Poetics of Folklore, 59). The logic of proverbs “allows the addressee to transform theme into meaning” (Seitel, “Three Aspects,” 75). The importance of ascertaining contextual information about a proverb’s performance for discerning its meaning has been established (Briggs, 1998: 103), and scholars generally concur that the meaning of a proverb is dependent on its context.

Whereas many scholars understand proverbs as a vehicle of interpersonal or social control, “To apply a proverb to a situation is a powerful means of controlling what it means, why it matters, and what to do about it” (Bauman, “Performance,” 109); others, hold a contrary, perhaps, complementary, view: “Proverbs cannot be applied to situations. Instead, they have a kind of magical character: they transform the situation” (Walter Benjamin, “On Proverbs”). Regardless of which of these two theses one accepts, proverbs summarize a situation, make a judgment, and recommend a course of action (Taylor, “Proverb,” 902). It is their very quality of impersonality that allows them to defuse tensions and restore equilibrium to otherwise fraught situations. Proverbs are “impersonal vehicles for personal communication” (ibid., 61), constituting a genre that “is an especially powerful example of the non-autonomy of texts and the necessary role of the audience in establishing coherence (Seitel, “Three Aspects,” 75). ← x | xi →

Proverbs, then, appear to communicate through analogy, the perception of equivalence between the express or implicit content of the clauses that constitute a proverb as well as, and necessarily, the analogy perceived by the speaker and the addressee between the proverb and the specific situation in which it is uttered, a double tertia comparationis. To my mind, the proverbial ecosystem embodies a modern remnant of ancient and medieval theories of knowledge that held that every situation that arises has already happened and may be summarized as a story (or proverb) which, if correctly interpreted, shows the proper response (an action or an attitude) towards that situation, in other words: “the problem has arisen before and the past practice has devised a workable solution” (Abrahams, “Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions,” 120–22).

The effectiveness of the proverb relies on its aptness to the situation in which it is uttered. Indeed, one and the same proverb may signal different aspects of a truth or even it’s opposite (Finnegan, “Proverbs in Africa,” 19); compare the ubiquitous English proverb “Look before you leap” with its counterpart, “He who hesitates is lost.” The proverb’s inherent characteristics, impersonalization, detachment, generalization, and appeal to tradition and experience confer on them an “oblique and allusive nature of expression […] which makes it possible to use them in a variety of effective ways” (Finnegan, “Proverbs in Africa,” 26)

Writing about Chinese folklore R. D. Jameson notes that it comprises a complex of custom, belief and ritual characterized by a long and complete written record and is in essence “identical with the folklore of other peoples” (“Chinese Folklore,” 220). Jameson singles out a basic concept in Chinese culture that is relevant to proverbial speech: “balance that is the law of existence” (221) which “induces serenity” (221). Now this “balance that is the law of existence” is reprised, it seems to me, both by the proverb’s balanced structure and its pragmatic function: restoring equilibrium to fraught situations.

It is apt, and therefore proverbial, for me to close by inviting Ivy and her colleagues to capitalize on their accomplishment, Mandarin and English translations of Zhuang proverbs with their themes and undertake a study of the contextual uses Zhuang speakers make of proverbs in their day-to-day affairs: who speaks to whom? in what context? where? when? and why? A contextualist study will bring to light the full range of nuances Zhuang speakers communicate through proverbs. Surely, Zhuang proverbs share with African proverbs the same linguistic skein: “Without them, the language would be but ← xi | xii → a skeleton without flesh, a body without soul” (R. S. Rattray, Ashanti Proverbs, quoted in Finnegan, 1981: 34).

My congratulations to Ivy on her accomplishments while in residence at the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition and to her and her colleagues for making these Zhuang proverbs accessible.

John Zemke

Center for Studies in Oral Tradition

University of Missouri-Columbia


Abrahams, Roger D. “Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions.” In Richard Dorson, ed., Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1972. pp. 117–27.

Bauman, Richard. “Performance.” In Bendix and Hasan-Rokem, eds., A Companion to Folklore, pp. 94–118.

Becker, A.L. Beyond Translation: Essays toward a Modern Philology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Bendix, Regina, and Galit Hasan-Rokem, eds. A Companion to Folklore. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Benjamin, Walter. “On Proverbs.” In Selected Writings, Volume 2:1927–34. Ed. by Michael W. Jennings et al. Trans. by Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999 p. 582.

Briggs, Charles. Competence in Performance: The Creativity of Tradition in Mexicano Verbal Art. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.

Dundes, Alan. “On the Structure of the Proverb.” In Wolfgang Mieder and Alan Dundes, eds., The Wisdom of Many: Essays on the Proverb. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981. pp. 43–64.

Finnegan, Ruth. Oral Tradition and the Verbal Arts: A Guide to Research Practices. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

———. “Proverbs in Africa.” In Wolfgang Mieder and Alan Dundes, eds., The Wisdom of Many: Essays on the Proverb. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981. pp. 10–42.

Frawley, William. “Prolegomena to a Theory of Translation.” In Lawrence Venuti, ed., The Translation Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 1984. pp. 250–263.

Hasan-Rokem, Galit. Proverbs in Israeli Folk Narratives: A Structural Semantic Analysis. Helsinki: Suomaleinen Tiedeakatmia/Academia Scientiarum Finnica, 1982.

Jameson, R. D. “Chinese Folklore.” In Maria Leach and Jerome Fried, eds., Funk & Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. New York: Harper San Francisco, 1972 [1949]. pp. 220–27.

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———, ed. The Anthropology of Performance: A Reader. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. ← xii | xiii →

Lauhakangas, Outi. “The Matti Kuusi International Database of Proverbs.” Oral Tradition 28/2 (2013): 217–22.

Mieder, Wolfgang. “Proverbs.” In Mary Ellen Brown and Bruce A. Rosenberg, eds., Encyclopedia of Folklore and Literature. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1998. pp. 525–28.

———. Proverbs: A Handbook. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2004.

———. Behold the Proverbs of a People: Proverbial Wisdom in Culture, Literature, and Politics. Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 2014.

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Mukarovsky, Jan. “Prislovi jako soucást kontextu” (The proverb as a part of context). In Cestami poetiky a estetiky, pp. 277–359. Praha: Edice Dilna, 1971. (Passages translated by Paul Garvin, in Joyce Penfield, Communicating with Quotes: The Igbo Case, pp. 96–104. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1983.)

Ojo Arewa, E., and Alan Dundes. “Proverbs and the Ethnography of Speaking Folklore.” In Korom, The Anthropology of Performance, pp. 61–72.

Rattray, R. S. Ashanti Proverbs: The Primitive Ethics of a Savage People. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1916.

Seitel, Peter. The Powers of Genre: Interpreting Haya Oral Literature. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

———. “Three Aspects of Oral Textuality.” In Bendix and Hasan-Rokem, eds., A Companion to Folklore, 75–93.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (November)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. XXIV, 270 pp.

Biographical notes

Zhou Yanxian (Author)

Zhou Yanxian is Professor of English Language and Literature and Dean of the School of Foreign Languages at Baise University in Guangxi, China. Her research interests include translations, linguistic and cultural comparisons of Chinese and English, and oral traditions of the Zhuang ethnic group in China. She has conducted several research projects, including a National Social Science Fund Project titled “A Comparative Study on Zhuang and Thai Proverbs,” and a key provincial project titled “Oral Narration of Zhuang People’s Long Folk Poems.” She has published five volumes of Zhuang long folk poems with English translation, studies of ethnic cultures, and more than thirty academic papers. Among them, Liao Songs of Pingguo Zhuang and On the Zhuang-English Translation of Zhuang People’s Liao Songs in Guangxi won provincial awards for Outstanding Achievements in humanities and social sciences.


Title: Two Thousand Zhuang Proverbs from China with Annotations and Chinese and English Translation