Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Chengyu: The Old Frontiersman Loses his Horse

The Old Frontiersman Loses His Horse

There once was an old man who lived with his only son on the northern borders of China. One day his horse disappeared. His son was distraught, and his neighbors came to comfort him. The old man, however, was not upset, and told everyone that this loss may some day bring good fortune. 

A few months later, his horse found its way back, and brought with it a fine horse from a neighboring state. His son was overjoyed, and his neighbors came to congratulate him. Again, the old man took the turn of events in stride, and told everyone that this gain could as easily bring misfortune as good fortune.

Some days later, his son was riding the new horse when he fell and broke his leg. With broken leg, his son was bedridden. His neighbors once again came to comfort him, but yet again, the old man reminded them that this unfortunate even could some day bring them good fortune. 

The old man was right - a war broke out, and all young men were conscripted to join the war efforts. As a result of his accident, the son was unable to fight the war and remained with his family. 

This idiom refers to the idea of a blessing in disguise. 

Discuss: Can you think of a bad situation that gave rise to blessings in your life?

If you'd like to read this as a story book, check out Ed Young's "The Lost Horse".

We borrowed this book from the library, but it turns out if you buy it it comes with paper puppets. Fun!

An idiom is an expression that is not meant to be taken literally. For example, in English, we often use the expression "It's raining cats and dogs". Obviously, we don't take this expression literally, we come to learn that it means it's raining hard outside. 

Though the Chinese have many proverbs and idioms, Chengyu are formalized idioms, usually using only four characters and relating to folktales, classical literature, and historical accounts. The four characters typically state a moral, and in order to properly understand their meaning, it is important to know the story behind them. There are at least 5,000 Chengyu. 

To learn about Chinese idioms is to gain another insight into the Chinese culture, their mores, and their history. We will be learning Chengyu, and their related stories, regularly for the rest of our "year in China". I believe the insights we'll gain will highlight many universal facets of human nature within their cultural context.


  1. You have a great blog. I am planning to study China with my kids soon and I plan to search your site for ideas:).

  2. Did your book come with the cool puppets? My guys loved this book, probably on account of the cool puppets (they were held together with paper studs!)
    We read this simply as a Chinese story book. I didn't realise it was an idiom!

    1. No! I got the book from the library (all the books we read come from the library)but now I feel like I missed out :) Puppets would have been great!


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