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The Chinese farmer story is one of many tao parables that can be interpreted in many ways. These stories are part of Taoism, or Daoism, as it is more commonly known in the west. Taoism is a long-standing religion in China known for its philosophies and promotion of a harmonious lifestyle.
The religion concentrates on the unity and contrast of opposites known as Yin and Yang. Some of the main elements of Taoism are to achieve a union with nature, being virtuous and development of the self.
Taoist parables, such as the story about the farmer, were written to teach people moral or religious lessons in life.
Use the short story of the Chinese farmer to practise your Chinese reading skills. You can click each sentence and see a full breakdown of each character and their meaning. Scroll down to find the Pinyin and English translation of the story.
These Taoist stories are often still extremely relevant in the modern day, and so once you’ve read the story, why not take a look at some of the interpretations of the parable. What was your understanding of the story? Feel free to share your own readings of the Chinese farmer story below!
塞翁失马 (sài wēng shī mǎ) Sai Weng Loses His Horse
《淮南子·人间训》(huái nán zi · rén jiān xùn) [Writings of the] Masters of Huainan – In the World of Man
塞翁失马 comes from the idiom 塞翁失马，焉知非福 (sài wēng shī mǎ, ān zhī fēi fú) that translates to ‘the old man lost his horse, but it all turned out for the best’. The English version of the story is often translated to ‘Maybe, Said the Farmer’.
Line by Line Pinyin Breakdown
- 1. Gǔ shí hou, yǒu yī gè lǎo tóur, zhù zài biān sài dì qū, rén chēng ‘sài wēng’.
- 2. Yǒu yī tiān, tā jiā de yī pǐ mǎ zì jǐ pǎo le.
- 3. Tā de lín jū tīng shuō le zhè ge xiāo xi hòu, dōu lái ān wèi tā.
- 4. Tā xiào le xiào shuō: “mǎ suī rán diū le, zěn zhī bú shì yī jiàn hǎo shì ne?”
- 5. jǐ ge yuè hòu, lǎo tóur diū shī de mǎ jū rán huí lai le, hái lǐng huí lai yī pǐ jùn mǎ
- 6. zhòng rén tīng shuō hòu, fēn fēn zhù hè tā
- 7. kě shì tā bìng méi yǒu hěn gāo xìng, shuō dào: “zhè yǒu shén me kě zhù hè de, yòu zěn zhī zhè bú shì huò duān ne?”
- 8. lǎo tóur de ér zi xǐ huan qí mǎ.
- 9. jǐ tiān hòu, yīn wèi xīn lái de mǎ bìng bù xùn fú, tā de ér zi cóng mǎ shàng shuāi xià lai zhé duàn dà tuǐ.
- 10. rén men tīng shuō le, yòu lái ān wèi lǎo tóur.
- 11. kě shì tā bìng bù jiāo jí, shuō dào: “shuō bu dìng hái shì jiàn hǎo shì.”
- 12. hòu lái, biān jìng shàng fā shēng zhàn zhēng, hěn duō qīng nián bèi zhēng diào rù wǔ, shàng le zhàn chǎng, shāng wáng shí zhī bā jiǔ.
- 13. lǎo tóur de ér zi què yīn wèi tuǐ shuāi duàn le, jiǎo xìng huó le xià lai.
- 14. suǒ yǐ, fú kě biàn wéi huò, huò kě biàn wéi fú, zhè qí zhōng de biàn huà nán yǐ zhuō mō.
- 15. “sài wēng shī mǎ” de chéng yǔ jiù shì cóng zhè ge gù shi lái de, tā cháng cháng yǔ “yān zhī fēi fú” lián zài yī qǐ shǐ yòng.
- 16. zhè ge chéng yǔ xiàn zài wǎng wǎng yòng lái bǐ yù huài shì kě yǐ zhuǎn huà wéi hǎo shì, huò zhě yòng lái xíng róng suī rán zàn shí shòu le sǔn shī, yě kě néng yīn cǐ dé dào hǎo chu.
English Translation of the Chinese Farmer Story
- 1. Once upon a time, there was an old farmer, called ‘Sai Weng’, who lived in the frontier area.
- 2. One day his horse ran away.
- 3. Upon hearing the news, his neighbours came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said, sympathetically.
- 4. “Maybe,” the farmer replied with a smile.
- 5. Several months later, the horse returned unexpectedly, bringing with it another fine horse.
- 6. “How wonderful,” the neighbours exclaimed.
- 7. “Maybe,” replied the old man, who did not seem very happy.
- 8. The old man had a son who liked riding horses.
- 9. The following day, his son tried to ride the untamed horse, but was thrown off and broke his leg.
- 10. Once again, the neighbours came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.
- 11. “Maybe,” answered the farmer, who didn’t seem very worried.
- 12. Later, war breaks out at the border and military officials went to the village to draft young men into the army. Most of them were killed or seriously injured in the war.
- 13. However, because of the broken leg, the old man’s son was unable to fight in the war.
- 14. So, ‘good’ luck can turn into a ‘bad’ thing, and a ‘bad thing’ can become ‘good’ luck, and it is hard to see how the change occurred.
- 15. The chengyu “塞翁失马” cames from this story and is always used with “焉知非福” meaning ‘a blessing in disguise’.
- 16. It is always used to express the sentiment that “‘bad’ things can become ‘good’ things” or “though suffering loss at the moment, profit may come later because of it”.
The following are interpretations of the Taoist story of the Chinese farmer:
- – The nothing is ‘bad’ luck or ‘good’ luck, but it depends on your interpretation of those events. Source
- – “The farmer’s tale captures many of those. In short, it reminds people that it’s best not to get too upset — or attached — to what happens to us. Even something that seems dark and confounding can turn out to be an opportunity when looked on in hindsight.” Source
- – The line between good and bad is blurry and therefore who can say what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. Based on Taoist beliefs on the balance of nature, everything has both ‘bad’ and ‘good’ parts equally. This is a really great Medium article, and the author talks a lot more about the story here: Source
- – My own interpretation is probably the most similar to #3: I see the farmer’s story as being about cause and effect. Going back to the balance of Yin and Yang, eventually, everything in the story was balanced again. Although seemingly ‘bad’ things happened, the universe realigned itself and ‘good’ things also occurred.
None of the members of the Written Chinese team are Taoists, and these are purely opinions based on the story of the farmer.