Posts in Proverbs
Ancient Chinese wisdom for self-improvement

Today we’re going to be taking a look at a proverb with depth - 静以修身 (jìng yǐ xiūshēn).

This four character proverb is usually translated as ‘a light heart lives long’. However, this is an English translation that feels pretty different from the meanings of the Chinese characters in the proverb. Before we have a look at its original meaning, a quick note on the phrase’s origin. 

Zhu Ge Liang (AD 181-234) was a military leader, scholar and inventor (credited with inventing, among many other things, the Chinese steamed bun 馒头 mántou!), as well as politician and prime minister of Shu Han during the Three Kingdoms period. The proverb first appeared in a letter Zhu Ge Liang wrote to his son filled with advice on growth, morals and learning. 

The growth Zhu Ge Liang speaks of is actually 修身 (xiūshēn), which means to ‘cultivate one’s moral character’, and so already has a much more layered and richer meaning than the mere ‘longevity’ pointed to in the English translation. 

In a previous post we mentioned that 以 (yǐ) can translate as ‘by means of’, for example, A by means of B. However, in this proverb the order of the words in play is reversed, and so the 以 (yǐ) will translate as ‘in order to’; B in order to A. 

Artwork by Weng Zhen Xin

Artwork by Weng Zhen Xin

So, how do we cultivate our moral character exactly? Zhu Ge Liang claims that it's through 静 (jìng) – ‘stillness, calmness, quietness’. And so we can translate the proverb rather rigidly as ‘cultivate one’s moral character through stillness.’ But this 静 (jìng) also features in one of the Chinese words for meditation (静坐 jìngzuò) and so the character's meaning in the proverb may be what today's meditators would refer to as ‘presence’ or ‘mindfulness’. Which gives us a modern interpretation of the proverb as ‘self-improvement through presence’ or ‘mindfulness for personal growth.’ 

However you choose to translate this proverb, it's a brilliant example of the value ancient wisdom can bring to our modern, fast-paced lives, and the underlying truth that calmness, quietness and stillness are vital if we are to improve ourselves, is clear.

Do the Chinese have a romantic proverb about spit?

Well, as it turns out, yes, they do!

Xiangruyimo (相濡以沫Xiāngrúyǐmò) translates literally as ‘to moisten with spittle’, or more symbolically as ‘sharing meager resources / mutual help in humble circumstances’.

This curious proverb was first coined by Daoist author and philosopher Zhuangzi (庄子 Zhuāngzǐ, 475-221 BCC), who described being moved by the humble actions of two fish in a dried out pool. These fish appeared to be blowing wet bubbles onto each other, effectively using their spit to maintain each other’s moisture under the heat of the sun, and thus, avoiding near-certain death.

Let’s take a moment to look at the different characters in this proverb.

相 as in ‘互相’ (hùxiāng) means ‘each other’ or ‘mutual’

濡 (rú) means ‘to moisten’

以 (yǐ) is a common character in ancient Chinese and here it would translate as ‘by means of’

沫 (mò) from ‘口沫’ (kǒumò) is spittle, saliva


A short Chinese language cartoon about the origin of this proverb.


This is a much-used idiom in Chinese and is regularly used to describe couples who help each other in times of need.

Whilst the images that come to mind when we hear the word ‘spit’ might not be the most romantic, the sentiment of helping our partners in difficult times is echoed in the English language marriage vow ‘for better or for worse’.

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