Monday, June 21, 2010

难得糊涂 - Where Ignorance is Bliss, it's a Folly to be Wise

I've given several Chinese calligraphy and painting scrolls to friends and family over the past couple years. Hand painted scrolls are beautiful and inexpensive presents to hand out on a return trip from China. Small scrolls can be as cheap as 20RMB, or about $3.

Before coming to the United States last year, Qian and I went to the 书院门 (Shu Yuan Gate) art district in Xi'an to pick up a few scrolls for people in the US. We bought several.

I particularly liked one calligraphy scroll in a small shop. I couldn't make out the characters very well, but thought the colors and brush strokes looked really nice. I asked Qian the meaning of it. She said something along the lines of:
"Oh, wow. That is really tough to describe. It basically means that sometimes it is better to look past someone's faults and just accept the person for who they are. Kind of like you should just turn your head instead of getting angry. It's very deep and philosophical. Older people use this phrase."
Thinking that this scroll has a pretty heady meaning that wouldn't be easy to explain to an aunt or uncle or anyone else I'd give the piece of art to, I decided to keep it. It is currently on the wall of our apartment. Here is a picture of it:

Having seen this just about every day but not having thought about it deeply much, I asked Qian about it again yesterday.

The characters are 难得糊涂, written traditionally. I went to the very useful chengyu dictionary at and looked up the meaning of this idiom. Below is the screen it gave me:

I was pretty taken a back by the translation of this. "Where ignorance is bliss, it's a folly to be wise." Where Qian's explanation was thorough, this is succinct. I think Qian's definition and this definition from the website are similar, but I'm honestly not sure. I've been thinking about these definitions a lot today.

Is Qian's definition of 难得糊涂 and's the same? Is this sentence good or bad or foolish or wise? Is it weird that I have this on my wall of my apartment? What does this mean?

As I understand this phrase right now, I like it. So few people in the world are 100% good or bad. Usually there are lots of layers and colors and shades to a person. Taking the bad with the good is part of life. Maybe a deep understanding of 难得糊涂 can be helpful on life's path and relationships with people.


Ramesh said...

Very nice post Mark and I really loved your summary in the last paragraph. Indeed, nothing in life is black or white - a profound thought which is so difficult to grasp.

Bill Rich said...

难得 = rare, hard to find
糊涂 = Confused, ignorant

The rest are just whatever the reader feels at the time, and the context when the phrase is used.

I like to use this phrase when I made a mistake, frequently.

Inaie said...

Reading your post, I thought about all the different interpretations the same piece can have.

I live in the Middle East, and often one phrase is nterpreted completely different from me, my Brazilian friends and all the other nationalities we live with.

Mao said...

China is opening up to Canada now for tourist purposes.