Guest Post: Story Behind the Idiom: 塞翁失马 – A blessing in disguise

Hey hey, lookie here, an excellent guest post submitted by native Chinese speaker Yang from Learn Mandarin Now. This story tells us a bit about the Chinese chengyu (idiom),塞翁失马, which can mean “a blessing in disguise”, or can conversely mean “bad luck disguised as good”. It’s used to point out the hidden positives or negatives in a situation, so you might say it means “there are two sides to every circumstance”.

I’m loving this post for the fable-y language: “servant”, “steed”, etc. Plus, I learned a new favorite word in this one: 塞外 sài wài, meaning “Beyond the Great Wall”. In other words, a remote place near the outskirts or borders of China. Also, don’t forget, 匹 pǐ is the measure word for Horses, so you’re gonna see that a few times.

There’s one phrase we should probably get into in greater detail, because I don’t think it’s immediately clear what it means: 全国上下的年轻男子都被抓去打仗. Let’s take a look at this, word by word:

全国 – The whole country
上下的 – Everywhere
年轻男子 – young men
都 – all
被 – grammar word usually indicating that the subject of the sentence has had something unfortunate happen to them
抓 – grabbed
去 – go out
打仗 – fight

The key word here is 抓 zhuā, which usually means to “catch” or “grab”. In this case, the word means “drafted”, so it still means to “grab”, but in this case, it’s the ruling power (probably the king) doing the grabbing up (of potential soldiers). The 被 in this case functions as “were”, with a negative overtone. So this can be translated as “All the young men everywhere in the country were drafted to go fight a war.”

Learn Mandarin Now’s “How to Read Chinese” page for a basic overview on getting started with Simplified characters, and look at their new blog for some learning tips.







Show English translation »
Once upon a time, there was an old man who lived with his son on the borders of the country. They both very much enjoyed riding horses. One day, a servant reported to the old man, “One of our good horses has gone missing. It seems the horse ran across to the neighboring country.”

Old man’s friends came and comforted him. However, the old man said: “Well, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Who knows!”

Couple of months later, a strange thing happened. The missing horse came back, accompanied by a great steed from the neighboring country. When his friends congratulated him on this great news, the old man said: “Well, this might bring us bad luck.”

One day, his son was having fun riding on the fine [new] steed. Suddenly, he fell from the hose and broke his leg. His son was never able to walk again. Again, his friends came to comfort the old man. But the old man was not bothered and said: “This accident might bring us good luck in the future.”

A year later, all young men in the country were drafted to join a war. Most young men who fought died on the battlefield. Luckily, his son avoided entering the war because of his broken leg.

34 replies on “Guest Post: Story Behind the Idiom: 塞翁失马 – A blessing in disguise”

Thank you for this wonderful website! This seems to be the only one where you can specifically practise reading, and it’s therefore meeting a real need.

Just one query about this chengyu. Shouldn’t the English summary be ‘good luck disguised as bad’?

奇妙的事情发生了 – I would translate this as ‘a wonderful thing happened’ not ‘strange’?

Great site.


Translation is he was never able to walk again. But doesn’t the character 正常 indicate ‘normally’. So perhaps it should be ‘he was never able to walk normally again’; as a leg break would not stop you from walking?

Thank you. This a great website and a very helpful way to practice reading. Translation is awesomely easy!

A question:
in the sentence “这个意外以后能为咱们带来好运也不一定。”

“也不一定” means “possible (maybe)” or “not likely”

I always thought that the meaning of “不一定” is “not likely”, but I feel that that the meaning in the sentence above is rather something like “possible”. Any comments?

As a native speaker, it seems like the author overused the particle 了. It feels out of place and excessive at times.

Avery, can you point out the specific places you think 了 should be left out? I’m not a native speaker, so I’d love to further my understanding of this rather confusing particle.

了 is usually used in the situation where you are talking about something that has already happen. This is how I was taught at my Chinese school.

Avery, can you point out the specific places you think 了 should be left out? I’m not a native speaker, so I’d love to further my understanding of this rather confusing particle.

This man is great, I mean the bad luck was actualy good with the other good luck. But that means they lived somwhere not in America but somwhere else right? Any ways Im happy for him. Only 9 years. Thank you!

Doesn’t anything seems to suprises me!!!
There is NO SUCH THING AS GOOD OR BAD L U C K, IT IS JUST A STORY!!! Anyways mom told me that is bad to say el you see kay….

The last paragraph says that although the son of the old man has broken his leg, it can be a good thing because he does not have to fight on battlefield. Most of the young men died in the war.

any chance you can turn-off comments. I love your resources but some comments aren’t kid-friendly enough to put my kids on this site without direct supervision.

Afraid not, a lot of folks get their questions answered in the comments. But that’s my bad, I should do a better job policing.

Many thanks!!!! i Just discovered this site and i find the reading materials and the structure of the site , ama zing! thanks thanks thanks!

wow, this old man is so gifted. He showed so much pride and self-esteem, careless about his value worth. I bet if the story continues, the old would say something like “my son’s death could bring us wealth in the future”

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