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The Hsinhsinming -10 Ox Herding Pictures - Visual Haiku - Exploration 勘探 - Shamanism - The Papalagi - Surrender - Not One Not Two - Ma Nature - The_Mooj


Exploration 勘探 (kān tàn)Edit

[kān] [kan1] /to investigate/to survey/to collate/
[tàn] [tan4] /to explore/to search out/to scout/to visit/



This famous passage comes from the Huainanzi.


近塞上之人有善術者,馬無故亡而入胡,人皆弔之。其父曰:「此何遽不為福乎!」居數月,其馬將胡駿馬而歸,人皆賀之。其父曰:「此何遽不能為禍乎!」家富良馬,其子好騎,墮而折其髀,人皆弔之。其父曰:「此何遽不為福乎!」居一年,胡人大入塞,丁壯者引弦而戰,近塞之人,死者十九,此獨以跛之故,父子相保。故福之為禍,禍之為福,化不可極,深不可測也。

Among the people who lived close to the border, there was a man who led a righteous life. Without reason, his horse escaped, and fled into barbarian territory. Everyone pitied him, but the old man said : “what makes you think this is not a good thing?”

Several months later, his horse returned, accompanied by a superb barbarian stallion. Everyone congratulated him. But the old man said: “what makes you think this is cannot be a bad thing?”

The family was richer from a good horse, his son enjoyed riding it. He fell and broke his hip. Everyone pitied him, but the old man said: “what makes you think this is not a good thing!”

One year later, a large party of barbarians entered the border. All the valid men drew their bows and went to battle. From the people living around the border, nine out of ten died. But just because he was lame, the old man and his son were both spared.

Thence, good fortune turns into bad fortune, and bad fortune turns into good fortune. These changes never reach an end, their complexity can never be fathomed.


Thanks to Bao Pu, who first sent it to me. It is more difficult than the others. I have made a number of interpretations which can be disputed (Bao Pu, if you are reading this, you will observe that there are a number of difference from what I said when we discussed it…), don’t hesitate to suggest alternatives.


近塞上之人有善術者,馬無故亡而入胡,人皆弔之 。其父曰:「此何遽不為福乎!」 Among the people who lived close to the border, there was a man who led a righteous life. Without reason, his horse escaped, and fled into barbarian territory. Everyone pitied him, but the old man said : “what makes you think this is not a good thing?”


近 close, near 塞 border 上 on, over 之 of (relative) 人 man

近塞上之人 people living close to the border

有A者 there was someone who 善 good, to be good at something, to do something well/in a righteous way 術 behaviour, way of life

馬 horse 無 to have not, there is not 故 reason, cause 亡 to flee, to escape 無故 qualifies亡 : he escaped for no reason 而 and 入 to enter 胡 barbarian, here barbarian lands, or steppe…

人 man 皆 all, before a verb, indicates a plural 人皆A : every one 弔 to grieve, to pity 之 him (complement)

其父 : this can be interpreted in different ways : 其 can be a possessive : his, or a demonstrative, this 父 usually means father, but is also used as a polite term for an old man, 其父 could then either by his father, or this old man (implying : this sage). I believe it is the second case here, as 父 answers the 善術者 in the preceeding sentence.

此 this 何 how 遽 suddenly, this word is probably used here instead of 據 base, reason 何遽 upon which base, why…

不 not 為 to consider 福 chance, good fortune 乎 at the end of a sentence, acts as a question mark

此何遽不為福乎 : literally : for which reason (何遽) do you not consider (不為) this (此) good fortune (福).


居數月,其馬將胡駿馬而歸,人皆賀之。其父曰:「此何遽不能為禍乎!」 Several months later, his horse returned, accompanied by a superb barbarian stallion. Everyone congratulated him. But the old man said: “what makes you think this is cannot be a bad thing?”

居 to live, to stay somewhere, often used as a prefix to time expressions : after, 居A = A later 數 several, 月 moon, month

居數月 several months later


其馬 his horse (其=possessive) 將 to accompany, together with 駿 an excellent horse, this word is rarely used alone, but usually in the expression 駿馬

歸 to return (opposite of 亡 above) 將A而歸 : he came back, together with A

賀 to congratulate


此何遽不能為禍乎!」 禍 bad fortune : this is the opposite of 福 in the above sentence. Lots of chinese texts use these parallelisms and oppositions, here we have : 馬無故亡 ->其馬…歸 不為福乎 -> 不能為禍乎

Note the 不能為禍 : cannot turn into something bad , 能 introduces a possibility here, (可 is often used for the same purpose)


家富良馬,其子好騎,墮而折其髀,人皆弔之。其父曰:「此何遽不為福乎!」 The family was richer from a good horse, his son enjoyed riding it. He fell and broke his hip. Everyone pitied him, but the old man said: “what makes you think this is not a good thing!”

家 home, family : this word usually refers to the people (not the house where they live) 富 rich, to be rich, to become rich 良 good, valuable, excellent

其子 his son (其 = possessive) 好 to like, to enjoy 騎 to ride a horse (the complement 之 : ride it, is implied here)

墮 to fall down (this specific word is often use when one falls from his horse) 折 to break 髀 hip, top part of the thigh bone


居一年,胡人大入塞,丁壯者引弦而戰,近塞之人,死者十九,此獨以跛之故,父子相保 One year later, a large party of barbarians entered the border. All the valid men drew their bows and went to battle. From the people living around the border, nine out of ten died. But just because he was lame, the old man and his son were both spared.

一 one 年 year

胡人 the barbarians 大 greatly (before the verb, it is an adverb) 入塞 enter the border

丁 an adult, someone who is older than 20, by extension someone strong 壯 a mature adult, someone in his 30s, by extension someone strong

丁壯者 all able-bodied adults…

引 to draw a bow 弦 the string of a bow 戰 battle, to go to battle

死者 those who died 十九 =十之九 nine out of ten, nineteen would probably be written十有九 ten and nine (有 you4, fourth tone, note that this is just the opposite of modern chinese expressions like 十有八九), this is the way classical chinese expresses fractions/proportions

近塞之人,死者十九 Among the people close to the border, those who died were nine out of ten

獨 only, alone 跛 lame, lameness 以A之故 : because of A 以跛之故 because of (his) lameness

保 to protect, to be protected 相 one another, before a verb, it can be used to express a « dual » (plural for two persons), as the english « both » : they both went to … 父子 two possibilities here, the son of the old man (父之子), or father and son (父與子), I think the second is the right one, because of the presence of 相 : one another


故福之為禍,禍之為福,化不可極,深不可測也。 Thence, good fortune turns into bad fortune, and bad fortune turns into good fortune. These changes never reach an end, their complexity can never be fathomed.

故 for this reason, introduces the moral of the parable 福之為禍 litt : the fact that good fortune becomes bad fortune (之 is a relative, 為 to become, to turn into) 化 change 極 the summit, the end, to reach an end 深 litt. Depth, deep, by extension complexity 測 litt. To plumb the depth of a river, a pool… to understand, measure

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