Give a man a fish... | 26.02.05

And you feed him for a day. Give a fool a fisking and you need to get a life.

Well, I wasn’t fisking Trirong Suwankhiri the other day but he sure tempted me. Besides glaring ideological and theoretical consistencies (note the plural), his essay is replete with factual and logical errors. Just pointing them out will take more time than I have. Still, it’s Sunday and I’ll allow myself to dissect just one that is factual and apolitical. For that, I need not look further than the very first sentence:

Consider the Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

To me — a speaker of Chinese — this popular “Chinese proverb” sounds, well, rather English. The invocation instantly reminded me of “One picture is worth a thousand words,” of which Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (16th Edition) has this to say: (p.782)

Misattributed “Chinese proverb”8

8One look is worth a thousand words.” Fred R. Barnard, in Printer’s Ink, 8 Dec., 1921, p. 96. He changed it to “One picture is worth a [sic] thousand words” in Printer’s Ink, 10 March, 1927, p. 114 and called it “a Chinese proverb, so that people would take it seriously.” — Burton Stevenson, ed., The Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims, and Familiar Phrases [1948]

Unfortunately, our “fish” quote is not listed in the venerable Bartlett’s, but appears instead in several lesser references. Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations and The Quotation Page both attribute it to “Chinese proverb”, while BrainyQuote credits Lao Tzu and SuperMemo, Confucius. Who is right?

No one. The most common Chinese variant of “Give a man fish…” is 授人以鱼不如授人以渔 which means “To grant a man fish is not as good as to grant [teach] him fishing.”

The same idea to be sure, but still a different expression. Whoever or whatever said that did not say “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The contrast between “a day” and “a lifetime” adds another dimension to the adage, bringing it into sharp relief. Indeed, I’d say that contrast is as instrumental as the fish/fishing analogy itself.

So perhaps one could say the English maxim was inspired by the Chinese one. Perhaps, but one would do well to read this discussion by Chinese-speaking linguaphiles before coming to that conclusion. The topic was started by Waiwai, who asked about the origin of “授人以鱼不如授人以渔” and whether there’s an established “English translation”. Yeti replied with the (almost) standard “Give a man a fish…” and asked whether BrainyQuote’s Lao Tzu’s attribution is correct (tellingly he was looking up the English version, not Chinese). Then came the real star of this thread, 古月: [translated from Chinese by yours truly]

The English version that Yeti posted is what I hear foreigners use all the time. The inherited Chinese version is now becoming common, too, but the wording is still all over the place — I have also seen the “授人鱼,供一餐之用;授人渔,则享用不尽” version. The citers basically all begin with “ancient people stated…”, “ancient people said…”, “there’s an old saying…” with some going so far as to use “foreigners say China has this ancient saying…” etc. This is one of the many unsettled issues in the world’s gold-jade beautiful words industry. Everybody propagates, everybody uses, full of creativity and wisdom. Even though everybody keeps saying this is “Chinese wisdom”, Chinese scholars are still pedantic. Is this really a case of “[cultural] exchange” or “piracy” and “counterfeit”? No one can determine. Where do words originate? Very likely only God knows :-)

“Confucius says, ‘May you live in interesting times!’”,“There’s a Chinese proverb, “Don’t take off your pants when having sex.” This type of dubious [“] Chinese [”] old sayings are as abundant as a cow’s hair, no way to verify them one by one. Some are altogether made up by foreigners who, in order to heighten effects, put their own witticism on Chinese philosophers’ heads. If the thing is composed rather cleverly, like this “fish/fishing” one, then it becomes widespread. When it spreads to China, prominent people have this translation, and it sounds authentic to boot. Such a high-quality maxim, who can refuse? This process of establishing a common expression as “a Chinese ancient saying” is actually quite logical.

However, China does have the expression “救急不救穷” [“to relieve emergency doesn’t relieve poverty”], now that’s indeed very Chinese. “Fish/fishing” looks like the complement of “救急不救穷”, with illustrative metaphors added. Translated to Chinese, it becomes all kinds of versions of a “Chinese ancient saying”.

Of course, not everybody on the thread agreed with 古月’s analysis. lsne thought the quotation is Chinese and yet she (or he) conceded the lack of corroborating “ancient literature” and ruled out Confucius: (original English text)

A separate note on 授人以鱼不如授人以渔. I think it could very well be of Chinese origins even we had failed to find out any ancient literature till now, judging from its philosophy, its wording and its popularity. But it is almost sure that it couldn’t be of pre-Qin 先秦。 So its first author could not have been Confucius, Guan Zi, Zhuang Zi.

Or Lao Tzu, I might add, as he lived in the Warring States period. And do keep in mind that quote she was referring to is “To grant a man fish is not as good as to grant him fishing.”

Based on all this information (and some more that I’m too tired to talk about), I think Wikiquote rightly puts “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime,” under English Proverbs. Khun Trirong goofs again, although this is probably the most benign of his errors.

I should leave him alone now, though. Remember Tom: Give a fool a fisking…

15:31 ▪ language

« As firm as marshmallow | Main | Heading left »

1
Bravo Romeo Delta 2.03.05

Then there is my favorite variant:

Give a man a flame, keep him warm for a day. Light a man on fire, keep him warm for the rest of his life.

2
Kelvin 4.05.05

As a Chinese, you’d be delighted to know that I’ve always thought that the saying was Biblical. So yah, you blame us, we blame you. ;-)

3
Brendan 13.05.05

I can say for sure that the phrase doesn’t show up in Laozi or Zhuangzi. The language of 授人以鱼不如授人以渔 sounds a bit more modern to me than anything within a few centuries of that vintage, but I could be (and probably am) wrong.

4
Slice 30.03.06

but give a man a chinese fish to eat and commit a homicide