Thinking sdrawkcab

Here are the words of a song we’ve been learning recently at the Bangor Community Choir:

When there is light in the soul, there is beauty in the person.
When there is beauty in the person, there is harmony in the home.
When there is harmony in the home, there is honour in the nation.
When there is honour in the nation, there is peace in the world.

We were told that it’s based on a Chinese proverb, so of course I searched for that proverb and found the following:

明明德於天下者,先治其國。(míngmíng dé yú tiānxià zhĕ, xiān zhì qí guó)
欲治其國者,先齊其家。(yù zhì qí guó zhĕ, xiān qí qí jiā)
欲齊其家者,先修其身。(yù qí qí jiā zhĕ, xiān xiū qí shēn)
欲修其身者,先正其心。(yù xiū qí shēn zhĕ, xiān zhēng qí xīn)

This expresses more of less same sentiments, though they are the opposite way round: it starts taking about the world, then the nation, the home, etc.

Here’s a rough translation:

Those who wish to bring light and virtue to the world, must first govern the nation.
Those who wish to govern the nation, must first organise the home.
Those who wish to organise the home, must first cultivate themselves.
Those who wish to cultivate themselves, must first correct their heart.

Does anybody know where this proverb comes from, by the way?

The way things are arranged in Chinese often seems backwards from the point of view of English speakers. For example, surnames come before personal names, and addresses start from the country or province, rather than with the name.

When speaking (Mandarin) Chinese I try to think in Chinese, but words sometimes come out in English, Welsh or French order, which doesn’t necessarily work very well. This is mainly because I haven’t been using Chinese as much as I used to, so am not as practised at constructing Chinese sentences. I can still communicate effectively in Chinese, but have to rearrange some of the utterances either in my head or after I’ve said them. More practise should help to eliminate this problem.

This entry was posted in Chinese, English, Language, Language learning.

10 Responses to Thinking sdrawkcab

  1. TJ says:

    Interesting thing here is that the song in Chinese is ordered backward which makes me think, is it the grammar only or the general and the traditional way of thinking in Chinese that makes ordering (in general, in various fields) is the reverse to what we see?

    I see the translation of the song in Chinese as “expressed” in reverse, but not for a grammatical “necessity” I guess.

    As for the proverb, I think if we looked somewhere in between the adages of Confucius, we would find something!

  2. It’s a quote from “The Great Learning” 大學, verse 2. Here is a link: So TJ is close.

  3. Thomas says:

    This is the opening verse from one of the four books used in the Ming-Qing period to study for the exams, namely the Da Xue 大学 “Great Learning”. We just had to learn this for our January exams of Classical Chinese and had to know it by heart.

    It’s really about prioritizing and being a good Confucian subject. Basically it says you have to begin with examing the nature of things, then expand your knowledge, then make your intentions pure, rectify your heart, balance your body (this is the most important one, the ‘root’), balance your home, govern your state and then peace is everywhere in the empire.

    Its origin is from the Liji I think, but under Zhu Xi’s influence it became one of the four books, next to the Analects, the Mencius and the Zhongyong.

  4. I have come to your blog via Kenji Crosland, who has invited us to join TeachStreet and gave me your link as an example. I am absolutely enthralled – and have now been thoroughly distracted reading all around your blog. Italian, French, Spanish, German are my languages in steeply descending order – so to read the comments pinning down the language in your quiz was amazing. And I love this post – how wonderful to be able to go and look up the Chinese proverb. Who composed the song you’re singing? Happy Chinese New Year tomorrow.

  5. bronz says:

    This saying/these lines has been quite well known so there are actually various versions of it throughout history. Some are in “reverse” order and some are not. As Thomas pointed out, Zhu Xi was a major influence on how the Confucian texts are now presented and read (the sources I looked up also attribute Liji 礼记 as the origin).

    The phrasing attributed to Zhu Xi’s edition of the text goes like this (there are actually three more “steps,” in parentheses; I’m sure Simon you noticed them in the original text you found too?):

    (物格而后知至,知至而后意诚,意诚而后心正,) 心正而后身修,身修而后家齐,家齐而后国治,国治而后天下平

    The three extra steps are, very roughly: (1) gain personal experience, (2) gain (true) knowledge [so (1)+(2) = knowledge through personal experience, not hearsay, e.g.], and (3) have sincere/true intentions.

    The simplified and very popular one-phrase idiom I learned simply goes like this:

    修身齐家治国平天下 (missing the first four steps)
    “cultivate self, unite/organize family/home, govern country, create-peace (in) world”

  6. bronz says:

    As for learning to put things in the right order in foreign languages, I had a hell of time when I was learning Turkish (worse than Chinese, I think, since Turkish is SOV, whereas both English and Chinese are SVO, not to mention postpositions instead of prepositions, among other things). Imagine when you use long subordinate clauses in either the S or O spots for a sentence such as “I think that…” — where in English you express that up front, in Turkish it could take you till the very end of an utterance to figure that what’s said before is just the speaker’s thought/opinion/etc.

    Turkish isn’t the most difficult language I’ve come across by far, but the morphosyntax was certainly one of the first serious language-learning challenges I’ve ever had to deal with. Everything just seemed kinda topsy-turvy from the get-go.

  7. dalt says:

    The two “versions” are actually two successive paragraphs in the original 大學 (Great Learning), which is Chapter 42 of 禮記 (Book of Rites). The text goes like this:


    Although Zhu Xi (12th century AD) wrote a commentary on “Great Learning” and popularized the text (he even claimed that it should be read before the Analects), the passages in question are from the original Book of Rites as recompiled in the 1st century BC.

  8. Simon says:

    Hi Majorie – it’s good to hear that you like my blog. The song was composed by Sharon Durant, a singer, songwriter and choir conductor based in Gateshead in the northeast of England.

  9. Andrew says:

    Not surprisingly, the Asian version places the group first and the individual last, I assure you that’s not an accident 😉


  10. Hello again, Simon – thank you for the link. I attended a session with Sharon at the Sing Up! conference last year – she’s quite inspiring. I wonder if she’s seen your post, with all the discussion of the original Chinese 🙂 I will have to look out the recording mentioned on the website…

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