Consider the following story:
A man forgot to bring his passport and missed his flight. Three friends from Asian countries each quoted familiar proverbs to cheer him up. The Javanese (Indonesian) said, “Nrimo: accept what is given by god.” Next, Chinese said “Saiwenshima, the condition would turn good. ” In the end, Japanese said “Ningen banji saiou ga uma, the results will turn good.”
This paper is about the similar proverbs in Asian countries: 1) Nrimo in Javanese; namely 塞翁失马（Saiwengshima）in Chinese, 塞翁が馬（Ningen banji saiou ga uma）in Japanese. Since all of them can’t be adequately translated into English, we show the concrete situation in which these idioms are quoted. You will understand the meaning of them more clearly by reading. To the English-speaker who reads this story, Nrimo, Saiwengshima and Ningen banji saiou ga uma seem to be very similar to each other. However, these words are slightly different because of the cultural differences such as the belief and values. You will find these differences in above-mentioned proverbs because idiomatic expressions reflect these differences very much. These proverbs quoted by Asians are key terms in this paper. Although it is very difficult to translate them into English, their brief definitions are as follows. Nrimo is accepting what happened. Saiwengshima and Ningen banji saiou ga uma are very similar to each other. Both mean everything may change too unexpectedly to judge fortune and misfortune easily.
On the contrary, the Javanese words weren’t compared with other languages. As a preceding study, Emiko ito (2012) compared the cultural norms appeared in Javanese, Thai and Japanese non-refusal expression. However, we haven’t found the research on the difference among Javanese, Chinese and Japanese.
So, the aim of this paper is to compare proverbs in three languages and find differences and similarities in the background ideas. This paper will investigate these slight differences and the practical use. We hope that this paper will be read by the university students interested in the culture and mutual understandings between countries.
Meanings of Nirmo, Saiwengshima, Ningen banji saiou ga uma may be similar to each other. However, they are slightly different in the meaning, background ideas, function, practical usage and attitude toward the future.
Nrimo is a Javanese idiom. People usually do not say this word in daily life, but it can be seen as a life philosophy that people might have in their minds. The related idiom “Nrimo Ing Pandum” means accepting what is given. And it is not about giving up on a situation, but accepting for what happened or what you have tried. The attitude of Nrimo is between gratefulness and helplessness. Also, in Nrimo, there is a transversal relation – a relation between human being and God or Universe. For example, characters and containing a single and complete meaning. If the interlocutors share the knowledge of the story behind an idiom, it will not be necessary for them to explain their attitudes or opinions explicitly and it allows the freedom of interpretation of the idiom.
According to Mangkunegara’s theory (Prasetyo & Subandi, 2014), doing Nrimo begins with Obah [efforts], and then follows by receiving Pepesthen Gusti [Divine Providence] sincerely and believing that God’s will create human nature. Also, Javanese people has this kind of idiom “Manungsa sakdrema nglakoni urip”, which means that people are just living their life and “Gusti kang wenang nemtoake” means God has the authority to determine. This is why Nrimo was born.
This idiom is like a reminder to us – as human beings, to always keep grateful for everything that happened in our life. Nrimo is also an attitude that helps us to cope with disappointment if something turns out unexpected from what you have expected. Bebendhu is one of the Nrimo’s functions. It means that Nrimo helps people to always be grateful and patient in every life problem. In addition, if people can do Nrimo in their life they’ll have these – gratitude and gratefulness so their soul will feel comfortable. When people’s souls feel comfortable or relaxed, it helps you to balance your emotion and remain peace of mind.
There was a student who wanted to buy a pair of shoes in a traditional market and the seller is an old man. The student bargained with the old man to get a cheaper price than the original price. They finally made an agreement and the student managed to get a cheaper price. And then, the student asked why the old man offer him a cheaper price. The old man said that he understands the situation that the student was in – “It’s okay if you get a cheaper price, because I know you’re just a student and you don’t have much money. Even though I can’t get any profit to give you the cheaper price, God has a plan for me and I think God will give me sustenance in other way.” After hearing what the old man said, the student started to feel a little bit uncomfortable for bargaining with him. And the student noticed that the old man has a child who is not much older than himself. Again, the old man said to him, “We should live like Nrimo Ing Pandum – when you have already tried your best to do something for your life but God doesn’t give you what you had expected, just accept it, and then you won’t have any burden in your life.” What the old man said to the student is one of an example how Nrimo can be used.
Saiwengshima [塞翁失马] is a Chinese four-character idiom, which is taken from the proverb “塞翁失马，焉知非福 [Sai weng shi ma, yan zhi fei fu]”. The idiomatic sayings in Chinese are usually made up of future which is waiting for you”.
Saiwengshima originated from a story in Huainanzi [淮南子]：
[It can be difficult to foresee the twists and turns which compel misfortune to beget fortune, and vice versa. Near northern China border to Hu tribe lives an old man well versed in divination. One day, his horse ran away to Hu side. When everyone comforted him on his loss of horse, he said “How do you know this won’t be something fortunate?” Several months late the horse came back with many fine horses from Hu. Again, when everyone congratulated his fortune. He said “That may also be something unlucky.” Seeing fine Hu horses, old man’s son was so excited to ride them. However, he fell off the horse one day and broke his leg. Having such unfortunate again, the old man again said “That may not be bad.” Then the war broke out between Hu and China, his son luckily escaped from the military service with his leg. So there is the uncertainty between good and bad fortune.]
According to Feng (1985), Huainanzi was influenced by Huang–Lao [黄老], which is the most influential Chinese school of thought in the early 2nd-century BCE in Han dynasty. Huang-Lao is an abbreviated name of two persons, Huang referring to the Yellow Emperor [黄帝] and Lao to the Laozi [老子]. Yellow Emperor is one of the legendary Chinese sovereigns and also a deity in Chinese religion. Laozi was an ancient Chinese philosopher, and also reputed author of the Tao Te Ching. Huang-Lao is about the Laozi’s philosophy under the name of the Yellow Emperor. And the most important part of Laozi’s philosophy is dialectical method in classical way. He hold the opinion that the good fortune follows upon disaster, and disaster lurks within good fortune, which was known as “祸兮福之所倚，福兮祸之所伏” or “祸福相依” [Things will develop in opposite direction when they become extreme, according to the transformation of the “disaster” and “good fortune” / Misfortune, that is where happiness depends; happiness, that is where misfortune underlies].
Saiwengshima shows the spirits of Huang-Lao – everything may change in such dual nature unexpectedly. Our life may also be uncertain like this. Loss of passport may ruin your vacation but may also help you escape from an air crash.
The original story of saiwengshima tells us that the results and causes can transform into each other and it is difficult to predict the twists and turns of life. It usually appears as a proverb “塞翁失马，焉知非福 [Sai weng shi ma, yan zhi fei fu]”, which means “when the old man from the frontier lost his horse, how could one have known that it would not be fortuitous?”. In the actual usage in daily life, Saiwengshima is usually seen as an optimistic attitude that one can have when something unfortunately happened to them.
1）To comfort and encourage others.
The proverb is usually used to cheer up someone when he or she is facing a failure. For example, your friend failed to enter the company he or she always wanted to be in, then you can say “Sai weng shi ma, Yan zhi fei fu. Now you are more experienced than before, and a better company is waiting for you in the future. Ａ man saved all his money and bought a new suit but suddenly his shoes were broken and he needed to buy a pair of new shoes whereas he had spent all his money. He took the attitude of Nrimo instead of complaining because he believed that this was what was given by God or the Universe.
2）To achieve peace of mind and inner calm.
When one failed, he or she might take the attitude of Saiwengshima and try to interpret the failure as a blessing in disguise in order to allay sadness, self-doubts and anxiety. Because one might know that Yin and Yang are complementary and interconnected from this idiom, he or she can be more resilient to the future failure and take action.
3）To set others’ minds at ease.
When one has experienced a failure, the other people who are care about this person will feel worried. In order to ease their worried minds, one can say “Sai weng shi ma, yan zhi fei fu.” to show the optimistic attitude.
Yu Minhong, a Chinese entrepreneur, failed university entrance exam twice. Finally, he was able to enter Peking University on his third attempt. However, due to pneumonia, he suspended his study, which made his dream, studying abroad, fell. He then became an English instructor in his university, but later he was fired for his part-time job outside the university. This unfortunate incident forced him to find another way out and it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He started a company, which is one of the first education companies in China. Nowadays, the company, “New Oriental Education and Technology Group”, has become the biggest educational organization of China.
2.3 Ningen banji saio ga uma
Nin gen ban ji sai o ga uma [人間万事塞翁が馬] is a Japanese proverb. It is sometimes called Sai o ga uma in short. Nin gen ban ji sai o ga uma means that every fortune and misfortune changes so dramatically like the story that we can’t judge them easily. This proverb advises us to be as calm as the old man when we succeed or fail in something because we can’t predict future correctly.
Next, we will show the outlines of research context of comparison of three languages. Many scholars have compared the Japanese proverb deriving from Chinese idea with Chinese counterpart. Especially, Yuasa (2010) pointed out that the meaning of saiwengshima and ningen banji saiou ga uma wasn’t understood correctly; that is, the phrases are used inappropriately. According to him, the original philosophy of Laozi was forgotten when the proverb became popular in China and Japan.
As Japanese Ningen Banji Saio-ga Uma is originated in Chinese Saiwengshima, the function of the Japanese saying is basically similar to the Chinese original version, but the warning function is more penetrated into the Japanese people’s mind. In daily usage, Ningen Banji Saio-ga Uma indicates not only an optimistic attitude, but also a warning to someone who is in a lucky situation (Daijirin, Kojikotowaza jiten. Therefore, in Japan, this saying is equally used both in a bad situation and a good situation, and this is assumed to be a major reason why this saying is popular among Japanese people; it gives a good lesson to be modest, which matches Japanese people’s preference of “中庸chuyo” (=state of being moderate, not to go extremes)”. There are some examples to show the popularity of this saying in Japan. First, this saying is listed as one of the top 20 saying which Japanese people love to use as their motto (kotowaza-kanyoku.com). Also there are a popular novel, TV drama and play titled “Ningen banji Saio-ga Uma” written by Japanese writers. All these examples suggest how this Chinese originated saying has been rooted in Japanese people’s lives.
Keiichi Aichi uses the proverb in his Denkigaku no taito Faradē no den[Story of Faraday – the father of electricity]. This book is a biography of Michael Faraday, a British scientist who contributed to the study of electricity and magnetism. In 1825, the Royal Society requested Faraday to investigate optical glass for telescope. The research continued till 1829, when its results were reported to the Royal Society. Shortly afterward the telescope with Faraday’s glass was examined in detail, and slightly dissatisfied with the product, the Royal Society asked him to make a perfect piece of glass of the largest size. He had already spent about five years until then, and he had no more time to complete it. After all, the research did not result in practical use. The optical glass seemed as a failure, so far as concerned the original hope that it would lead to great improvements in telescopes. However, based on the experiments during the years, Faraday could succeed in his future studies. Aichi expresses this episode as “万事塞翁が馬” and adds that future cannot be foreseen.
3. Related Expressions
Some expressions in Chinese have similar meanings with nrimo, such as “随遇而安 [suí yù ér ān]” (let it be; whatever will be, will be), “顺其自然 [shùn qí zì rán]” (let nature take its course), “随缘 [suí yuán]” (go with the flow). Also in Japanese, there is a similar saying “成り行きに任せる[nariyuki ni makaseru]” (live and let it go).
Saiwengshima and Saiogauma have the same origins and can be translated to “Blessing in disguise” in English. They have similar usage in both China and Japan. People learn them in elementary school, but they are not frequently used in daily conversations. If they are used in daily conversations, they often appear while cheering up a friend.
While Japanese and Chinese cheer up a friend, although people may not say Saiwengshima or Saiogauma, their spirits remain in conversations. For example, to cheer up a friend, Chinese people may say “好事多磨 [hǎo shì duō mó]” (good things always come after difficulties) and Japanese people may say “終わり良ければすべて良し[owari yokereba subete yoshi]” (if the result is good, then everything is good). These related expressions focused on the positive aspect in the original story of Saiwengshima and Saiogauma, that bad things may turn out to be good things.
There are also some phrases related to the negative aspect of the original story (good things may turn out to be bad things). In Japanese, the following phrases are usually used to warn people to pay attention to the unexpected interruptions: 好事魔多し [koujin ma oosi] (good things always accompany difficulties; originated from 好事多磨, but the usage became different) and 一寸先は闇 [issun saki wa yami] (the place in front of you might be darkness).
4. Conclusion and Applications for Intercultural Understanding
Nrimo, Saiwengshima and saiogauma suggest there is a super power beyond human beings like God or Heaven, which is not shown in the “blessing in disguise”. Both nrimo and saiwengshima contain an attitude of accepting the reality. Nrimo focuses on what happened in the past, which is a state between gratefulness and helplessness, while saiwengshima implies an acknowledgement of the possible failures or tragedies that might happen and also a positive expectation for a brighter future. Nrimo and Saiwengshima suggest that even though life is “hard”, we can find inner peace and calm within ourselves. The origin of Japanese Nin gen ban ji sai o ga uma came from Chinese Saiwengshima, and the two expressions have almost the same meaning. They often indicate the situation where the future cannot easily be foreseen.
Nrimo seems a little different from the other two proverbs because it refers to the relationship between man and God. Although Saiwengshima and Nin gen ban ji sai o ga uma are derived from ancient Chinese Taoism, they do not have religious implications. However, the three expressions seem to represent the similar attitude towards the realities of life. All of them mean accepting what is given. They offer us some hints on how to understand cultural and psychological basis of Asian countries.
- How is Nrimo or Saiwengshima expressed in your language and how might they be different in your country?
- Do you think the attitudes of Nrimo or Saiwengshima are positive? What kinds of attitudes do you think you might take if you face a tragedy or failure?
- How do you often comfort your friends, family members, classmates etc. when they are in a low mood because of a tragedy of failure?
- Is there any story, tale, myth etc. that teach people how to cope with a tragedy of failure in your country? Is it different from the concept of Nrimo or Saiwengshima?
- What can the subtle nuances in meaning among the keywords in this paper tell us about underlying cultural values or beliefs in Indonesia (Java), China, and Japan?
References and Further Reading
Aichi, K. (1923). Denkigaku no taito Faradē no den [Story of Faraday – the father of electricity]. Iwanami Shoten.
Feng, Y. L. (1985). Zhong guo zhexueshi xinbian desance [A New History of Chinese Philosophy, Book 3]. Renmin Press.
Huo, Y. Q., Chen, Y. Y., & Guo, Z. Y. (2013). Zhong guo chuantong wenhua zhong de leguanxin li sixiang tanwei [An Exploration on the Inter Complementary Optimistic Psychological Thoughts of the Confucianism and Taoism in the Traditional Chinese Culture]. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 45(11), 1305-1312. https://doi.org/10.3724/SP.J.1041.2013.01305
Kompasiana.com. (2015). Belajar Filosofi “Nrimo” dari Masyarakat Jawa. Retrieved August 12, 2018, from https://www.kompasiana.com/wahyu.sitepoe/5510aa2c813311ae33bc6d30/belajar-filosofi-nrimo-dari-masyarakat-jawa
Learn Chinese Now. (2012). The Old Man of the Frontier Loses his Horse – 4-Character Sayings. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csC9mEZWMmU
Nin gen ban ji sai o ga uma – The Dictionary of Proverbs. Retrieved August 12, 2018, from http://kotowaza-allguide.com/ni/saiougauma.html
PKL Online. (2016). Bagaimana konsep Nrimo dalam pandangan budaya Jawa? Retrieved August 12, 2018, from https://www.dictio.id/t/bagaimana-konsep-nrimo-dalam-pandangan-budaya-jawa/2777/2
Prasetyo, N. H., & Subandi, M. A. (2014). Program Intervensi Narimo Ing Pandum untuk Meningkatkan Kesejahteraan Psikologis Keluarga Pasien Skizofrenia. JIP : Jurnal Intervensi Psikologi, 6(2), 151-170. https://doi.org/10.20885/intervensipsikologi.vol6.iss2.art1
Prince Ea. (2016). The Farmer Story. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P3P7f0Zg9wk
Yuasa, K. (2010). Koziseigo no Tanzyo to Henyo [The birth and changing of the proverb]. Kadokawa Sousyo.