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( Lyotard, Jean Francois | Knowledge )




Since more than two thousand years, Chinese writers have collected proverbs. Many of these collections contain almost exclusively sayings from the classical literature, i.e., the so-called four books and the five classics (szu-shu and wu-ching). Until the end of the old system (1904), these classics were the basic texts for the state examinations. Many young men competed for the examinations, but the percentage of students passing was always very low. At least, some of these texts had to be memorized and so many sayings became proverbs, known to the educated class. I have a manuscript which contains only sentences from these "classics". Many of them are as well known as quotations from the Bible in Christian societies.

Before 1904 some authors collected sayings from the general public which we could call "folk proverbs." The largest recent collection I know is that of Mr. Chu Chieh-fan who collected proverbs from soldiers hailing from almost all parts of China during his stay in the Chinese army. Only part of this collection has already been published by Mr. Chu. He carefully noted the place where he had been told a proverb. I do not know whether some of his data come from women, but I guess that most are from men.

There is no lack of material, but for a folklorist this is not satisfactory. Though I know a number of German proverbs, I practically never use proverbs. The youth group in which I lived would have ridiculed me if I had used a proverb instead of saying what I wanted to say in plain language. The only acceptable way was to say the first half of a proverb and let it be followed by the second part of another proverb, in such a way as to totally pervert the original meaning of both proverbs.

I have asked my sociology students several times whether or not they use American proverbs in ordinary speech. Not a few said they did not use any. Others pointed out that some proverbs, such as "a penny saved is a penny earned," do no longer apply to present-day conditins.

Sociologists like to use statistical methods, i.e., they try to find out who and how many persons in a given sample do this or that. These methods are often not applicable in folklore. We cannot select a random sample of more than one hundred persons and observe them when and why they use a proverb and which one. Of course, we can ask them which proverb they think they use in ordinary speech. But such a "survey" would be of little value for the study of proverbs and would be difficult to apply.

So, I decided to use a number of well-known Chinese novels as my sample. Of the "six larger texts," I studied the whole novel. This method also allowed me to study who uses a proverb in speaking to whom to a person lower in rank or education than the speaker or a person higher in rank that the speaker. The users of a proverb in my novels most often introduce a proverb by a standard introductory phrase of two to three words.

Do different authors use different proverbs? Are there regional differences? Proverbs are of different length and structure. Some consist of two different parts, some are rhymed, but only the two-line proverbs can be rhymed. Are all proverbs in a novel put into the mouth of a person in the novel or are there proverbs used by the author of the novel? For which purpose does an author use a proverb in his novel? Actually, the author frequently summarizes a situation by means of a proverb and, by doing so, he often characterizes the heroes of his story.

My material has been divided into two parts: the first group of six "long" text (871 proverbs) includes only texts in which at least 66 proverbs are mentioned. The second group consists of eight "short" texts, none of which has more than 66 proverbs. These short texts will not be discussed one by one, but they will serve as a kind of comparative sample.

On account of the monosyllabic structure of the Chinese language, proverbs can be easily classified in distinguishing between proverbs with four, five, six, seven or, rarely, eight words. Proverbs with only three words exist only in the form of two separate lines and are very rare. Many proverbs are structured in the form of two lines. These proverbs can be rhymed or can consist of two parallel lines. In this case, the second line has usually the same interval and grammatical structure as the first line. According to Chinese taste, the "better" a novel, the fewer proverbs are repeated.

Very often, proverbs are introduced in the text by a special short formula, such as "from old times, it is said..." or "truly, it is...", but not all proverbs are introduced. Even in such cases, the decision as to whether a sentence is or is not a proverb is normally easy, as it may, even in the same text proverbs can occur in different places in the same novel with or without a standard "introduction."

I selected therefore six well-known novels. This task was quite time-consuming, because I had to read the six long novels which are the basis for this study in their entirety. I noted down every proverb I found.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 11:2000 & Issue 12:2000, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

I developed a simple coding system for my analysis. The format of my punch cards did not allow me to code more particularities. In each analysis, I indicate which coding point was used, but I will start out with indicating the distribution of how often each item is found within each code of each novel, in the long and in the short texts.

My students raised the point that they personally did know a good number of American proverbs, but that they would hesitate to use a proverb when speaking to a person higher in rank or status than they rather than to a person lower in rank. This is a problem because in traditional times a woman was principally lower in status than a male speaker. Exceptions to these rules are cases in which the speaker was a military man and the female addressed was a princess.

II. The Code

Now, let me first give you the code with all of its weaknesses:

The six long novels coded are:

  1. Feng-shen yen-i, a 100-chapter novel which pretends to give a mythological history of the end of the Shang and the beginning of the Chou Dynasty.
  2. Chin P'ing Mei tz-u-hua, a large edition in 100 chapters, published in Japan and reprinted in Taiwan.
  3. Shui hu chuan, one of the "classical" novels, in 71 chapters. I used a Taiwan reprint of a standard form of the novel.
  4. Chi-kung chuan, the life and activities of an unorthodox monk are described in 280 chapters. Early forms of this novel go back to the beginning of the 19th century. I used a recent Taiwan reprint, 572 pages.
  5. Hung-lou meng, this world-famous novel by Ts’ao Hsüeh-ch’iu was written at the end of the 18th century. I used a 1061-page, 120-chapter edition published in 1973.
  6. Erh-shih tsai fan-hua meng was written around 1907. I used a 196-page, 40-chapter modern Taipei reprint of 1974.

The eight short novels are:

  1. Chan-chen i-shih, this novel in 40 chapters deals with the life of an unorthodox Buddhist monk. The novel may have been written before the 17th century. I used a modern hardbound edition printed in Taiwan.
  2. Ju-lin way-shih, from the early 19th century. I used a recent reprint and also looked into the English translation for proverbs.
  3. Hsing-shih heng yen, a collection of "short-stories," by Feng Meng-lung, (Ming Period).
  4. Sui Yank-ti yen-shih, the immoral life of the last emperor of the Sui Dynasty is described in 40 chapters. I used a modern Taiwan reprint.
  5. Wen-jou hsiang (Warm-Soft Country). I used a 1929 Shanghai edition where the author’s pen name is Ching kuan tse. This text is quite different from the older text in the Hsiang-yen ts’ung shu collection.
  6. P'ing yao chuan, a novel in 40 chapters. I used a modern Taiwan reprint. The original novel exists in several earlier editions and is much shorter. "Defeating goblins."
  7. Ch’ien lung yo Chiang-nan, a short novel in 18 chapters, probably of recent origin. I used a modern Taiwan reprint, "The Ch’ien-lung emperor travels in South China."
  8. Yang-chia-chiang, the story of the generals of the Yang family. The recent repring I bought in Taiwan has 50 chapters.

Code Numbers

  1. proverb with two lines
  2. four words per line
  3. five words per line
  4. six words per line
  5. seven words per line
  6. irregular or eight words
  7. rhyme
  8. both lines are parallel in structure
  9. general statement, usually by the author
  10. man speaks to man
  11. man speaks to woman
  12. woman speaks to man (see also No. 18)
  13. speaker talks to a person of lower than his own rank
  14. speaker talks to a person of higher than his own rank
  15. speaker gives advice to a partner or warns him
  16. speaker gives advice to another person’s situation
  17. author speaks to himself
  18. woman speaks to woman
  19. introductions: shuo, shuo-tso, ku-yü, ku-yün, ku-jen su-yü, su-yü shuo, tse-ku
  20. introductions: cheng-shih, chen-shih, chen-so-wei, chih-shih
  21. introductions: ch’ang-yen, su-yen, so-yüeh
  22. other or no introduction (other forms of intruduction are very rare.)
  23. not used
  24. proverb consists of there words or two times three words only.

When a proverb is found more than once in the same novel, it is used more than once when any of the code data deviate concerning codes 9 to 18 or 19 to 22. Changes in 9 to 18 indicate, in fact, a different usage of a proverb. I did not check whether and how many proverbs in novels are quotations from the classical literature. I do not think that the percentage of quotations is very high and that this does influence the main points of this study.

Number of Proverbs used in the Texts
  1. Longer texts more than 67 proverbs per text:


The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 11:2000 & Issue 12:2000, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.


  1. Shorter texts:

    1. Chan-chen i-shih
    2. Ju-lin wai-shih
    3. Hsing-shih heng-yen
    4. Sui Yang-ti yen-shih
    5. Wen-jou hsiang
    6. Yang-chia chiang
    7. Ch’ien-lung yo Chiang-nan
    8. P'ing yao chuan


    63 proverbs
    44 proverbs
    33 proverbs
    15 proverbs
    11 proverbs
    9 proverbs
    8 proverbs
    6 proverbs

     198 proverbs

Percentages of Codes in the Six Long Novels
  1. Feng-shen yen-i, 276 proverbs


  2. Chin P'ing Mei, 136 proverbs


    Completely identical proverbs are included if they differ in points 19 to 22 or in any point between 9 and 18.

  3. Shui-hu chuan, 119 proverbs


  4. Chi-kung chuan, 119 proverbs


  5. Hung-lou meng, 110 proverbs 


The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 11:2000 & Issue 12:2000, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers. 


  1. Erh-shih tsai fan-hua meng, 68 proverbs.

Editor Wang I-chao, publisher T’ien-i ch’u pan she, volume 1, 198 pagees, 40 chapters, 1974

Under Code 19, 28 proverbs, almost all which are coded 19, are initiated by Sy-yü shuo (41.1%) 19 by tseku (29.9%) and 7 by ku-jen (10.3%).

Percentages of Codes in the Eight Short Texts
    •  Chan chen i-shih


    • Ju-lin wai-shih, 44 proverbs


    • Hsing-shih heng-yen (partly), 33 proverbs


    • Sui Yang-ti yen-shih, 55 proverbs


    • Wen-jou-hsiang, 11 proverbs


    • P'ing yao shi (chapters 30 to 35), 6 proverbs

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