Story Behind the Idiom: 盲人摸象 – To only partially understand something

Guest post! The story behind the classic Chinese idiom (成语 chéng yǔ) “Blind People Touch an Elephant” (“盲人摸象” máng rén mō xiàng), was contributed by the content team over at Du Chinese – thank you guys. As I say often, I always struggle to find Mandarin reading appropriate for newbies, as most writing won’t come together without some higher-level words, but if you’re just getting started and these posts are too hard for you, Du Chinese has more HSK 1 and 2 materials than I’ll ever have, since they write their own Chinese content, so they can control the difficulty level.

The idiom 盲人摸象 refers to only having a surface-level understanding of something, or to only understand part of something but think you have the whole story. It is believed to have originated from a Buddhist sutra, the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra 《大般涅槃经》, to be precise, which is over 1500 years old. This is not the original text of the sutra – the original Sanskrit version was lost, and this story has been re-told a zillion times in a zillion ways, but it’s still cool to get a glimpse into what is essentially a Buddhist story from antiquity.

Some language stuff

长什么样 zhǎng shén me yàng – The character 长 has many meanings and two pronunciations. The one we usually learn first is cháng, which means “long”, as in the opposite of “short”. But pronounced zhǎng, it also means “appearance”, or “what something looks like” (and about a billion other things, so don’t get married to that definition). So, 长什么样 means “what something looks like”.

原来 yuán lái – I just went over this in a recent post, but again, this means “turns out that”, as in, “Turns out she was here to see someone else.”

只不过 zhǐ bu guò – Is nothing more than / is nothing but.

才能 cái néng – My dictionary pop-up generator has this wrong, it displays the definition as “ability” or “talent”. As a noun, that is indeed what 才能 means. However, this is actually not a single noun made up of two characters, but two separate characters, 才 and 能, which together mean “only then can one _____”. I always found 才 to be a pain-in-the-butt character, because it has so many amorphous meanings that don’t translate well into English, and you can only really figure out which one is being used in context, and some of those meaning are direct opposites. Blogger Jenna Wang does a good job of explaining all of them here.

Want something easier?

Du Chinese has a big catalog of easy HSK 1 and HSK 2 texts for ultra-beginners. There are quite a few free practice lessons, but CRP readers get 10% off on paid accounts using the discount code CRP10.






“你们说的都不对,大象只是一根大柱子。” 原来第三个盲人摸到的是大象的腿。




Show English translation »
A long long time ago, four blind people wanted to know what an elephant looks like. But they couldn’t see it, and could only touch it with their hands.The first blind person touched the elephant’s teeth. He said: “I know! An elephant looks like a big radish.”

The second blind person touched the elephant’s ears. He yelled out: “No no, the elephant looks like a big fan!”

“You’re both wrong, the elephant is just a large pillar.” Turns out the third blind person was touching the elephant’s leg.

The fourth blind person disagreed, and said: “The elephant isn’t that big at all, it’s just a rope.” He was touching the elephant’s tail.

The four blind people argued endlessly, and they all said that the part they touched was the elephant’s true appearance. And in reality? None of them were correct.

“Blind people touch an elephant” teaches us that we shouldn’t just look at one part of a problem. We should look at all of it, and only then can we truly understand the problem.

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