The International Monetary Fund has placed China as the world’s largest economy as measured by purchasing power parity.
Looking at the growing percentage of middle-class Chinese and corresponding decrease of citizens in poverty, as well as the total number of successful Chinese entrepreneurs on the world stage, perhaps there is value in turning to the wisdom of the ancient Chinese to help us make better financial and business decisions.
Here are 8 of our favourite proverbs that are still highly relevant in today’s modern world.
#1 The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now
Many observations and lessons can be gleaned from this deceptively simple saying.
First, the observation that accomplishing worthy and great things take a long time. In our context, we can think of preparing for retirement, saving up for your child’s education, and even attending courses to improve yourself.
Following the recognition that great things take a long time to accomplish, the first sentence emphasises the importance of having foresight to plan ahead for one’s needs, way before the day of need comes.
For those who had not been conscientious in anticipating and preparing for one’s future, the first sentence can be likened to a strict reprimand.
This balanced out by the ensuing sentence, which tells the reader not to cry over spilt milk. What’s done is done. It is also a reminder that it is never too late to begin, right here and now.
Thus, this ancient saying emphasises the importance of forward thinking and planning, as well as taking decisive action in the present moment.
#2 Deep doubts, deep wisdom; small doubts, little wisdom
The way to wisdom and knowledge is to be ever curious, seeking and learning. This proverb is inspiring because it affirms that in the long run, it is the spirit of continual learning and self-improvement that allows one to be an expert.
It does not matter how little we know now, but rather, it is the thirst and hunger for knowledge that will determine how wise a person we will eventually be.
There is also an element of critical thinking too – to not accept blindly what we are told but to be sceptical as we separate fact from fiction, truth from falsehood.
#3 As a man cannot be understood just by his looks, neither can the sea be fathomed by a cup
Chinese: 凡人不可貌相, 海水不可斗量
This proverb cautions us of the dangers of judging things by appearance. In all things, like financial products and “investment opportunities”, we cannot just take things based on what is sold or promoted to us, but rather, we need to go deeper and understand the essence of things.
Its also about substance over appearance. Rather than define success as driving a new luxury car and staying in a condominium, it would be better to concentrate on what lies beneath the surface, which may not be immediately apparent. These include being insured for catastrophic events in life, having the time to take care of your family and health, and other intangibles.
A successful person isn’t necessarily the one whose Instagram feed looks the most enviable or exciting.
#4 A bad craftsman blames his tools
Everyone makes mistakes, and there are bound to be occasions where things don’t go our way.
However, to be sour and merely pin the blame on external things like markets, our financial advisors, or the government does not help us avoid the same fate in future.
Rather, by taking ownership of what has happened, and being determined to learn from the experience, we can be more ‘skilled’ at creating what we envisioned.
In a market downturn, there are people who would stand to make alot of money, or at least have their downsides protected. To say that the stock market is a scam just because we lost money is an example of avoiding introspection and not reflecting on our weaknesses and shortcomings.
#5 A small hole not mended in time will become a big hole, which is much more difficult to mend
In just eight words, it is explained that if a trivial problem is not solved in a timely manner, it will grow to become a serious one and cause lot of misery.
The lesson here is not to allow problems to sit and fester. Problems like not paying down high-interest debts, overpending beyond your means, or problem gambling can spiral into a vicious cycle of financial ruin. Nib them in the bud.
The proverb also hints at the importance of timing. By taking action at the right time, we can accomplish much more, with the same effort. Conversely, if we missed the window of opportunity, we may end up expending much more effort and resources to accomplish the same, or worse, result.
#6 An oil lamp becomes brighter after rubbing, concepts becomes clearer after being discussed
When trying to comprehend a complicated problem, only by discussion and exchange of ideas with others can we gain insights and understanding.
Sometimes, spectators in a game see more of the game than the players. When we are deeply vested in our own situation, we may not be able to view things rationally or have a comprehensive overview of things.
By sharing our situation and thoughts with others, we can benefit from their views and gain a broader, more accurate perspective of our own situation.
There is also an element of being humble enough to seek the counsel of others.
#7 When rich, think of poverty, but don’t think of riches when you are poor
Here, we are reminded to always be frugal, even in times of prosperity. To assume that one’s prosperity and fortunes will last is a foolish way to live. In fact, it is during the good times that we should prepare ourselves for leaner times.
On the flip side, it does not do us any good to be obsessed with being rich when we are in humble circumstances. The reason for this is twofold.
Firstly, a blind quest to strike it rich can cause us to be reckless. It is precisely when we are not wealthy that we cannot afford to take risks with our money.
Secondly, an unhealthy fixation with wealth disregards the non-monetary treasures in one’s life, like family bonds, health, quality relationships with others, and even the simple but wonderful joys of nature.
#8 Dripping water pierces a stone; a saw made of rope cuts through wood
Chinese: 水滴石穿, 绳锯木断
Small efforts, though seemingly insignificant, when coupled with patience and persistence can accomplish great feats.
Whether its saving and investing for financial freedom, or to take your loved ones on a round-the-world holiday, or clearing the mountain of debt you have, do not underestimate and neglect the small efforts you make each day.
Every dollar you save, every dollar you earn, every dollar you invest – they can literally compound over time and grow immensely.
Don’t be discouraged. Keep making steady efforts each day, every day, and you will get there!
What are the other proverbs or idioms from the ancient Chinese or other cultures that you’re fond of? Share with us in the comments below or at our Facebook Page!