The old man lost his horse

The old man lost his horse (but it all turned out for the best) (Chinese: 塞翁失馬,焉知非福; lit. 'The old man of the frontier lost his horse', 'how could he know if this is not fortuitous?'), also known as Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows? or Bad luck brings good luck, and good luck brings bad luck are some of the many titles[1] given to one of the most famous parables from the Huainanzi (淮南子; 'Master of Huainan'), chapter 18 (人間訓; Rénjiānxùn; 'In the World of Man'[2]) dating to the 2nd century B.C. The story exemplifies the view of Taoism regarding "fortune" ("good luck") and "misfortune" ("bad luck").

The story is well-known throughout the East Asian cultural sphere and is often invoked to express the idea of "silver lining" or "blessing in disguise" in Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese.

In Western literature the parable was modified and is frequently used in philosophical or religious texts or in books dealing with management or psychological strategies.

Translation edit

The English text is mostly based on the translation by Claude Larre et al. Les grands traités du Huainan zi, 1993, p. 208–209.

塞翁失馬 (Chinese) "Old Man of the Frontier Loses Horse" (English)
夫禍富之 (also 夫禍福之) 轉而相生, Good luck and bad luck create each other
其變難見也. and it is difficult to foresee their change.
近塞上之人有善術者. A righteous man lived near the border.
馬無故亡而入胡. For no reason, his horse ran off into barbarian territory.
人皆吊之.(also 人皆弔之.) Everyone [people] felt sorry for him.
其父曰: [But] His father spoke [to him]:
„此何遽不為福乎?“ "Who knows if that won't bring you good luck?"
居數月, Several months later
其馬將胡駿馬而歸. his horse came back with a group of [good, noble] barbarian horses.
人皆賀之. Everyone [people] congratulated him.
其父曰: [But] His father spoke [to him]:
„此何遽不能為禍乎?“ "Who knows if that won't bring you bad luck?"
家富良馬, Now his house is rich in horses
其子好騎, and the son mounted with joy/loved riding.
墮而折其髀. He fell and broke his leg.
人皆吊之. Everyone [people] felt sorry for him.
其父曰: [But] His father spoke [to him]:
„此何遽不為福乎?“ "Who knows if that won't bring you good luck?"
居一年, One year later
胡人大入塞, the barbarians invaded across the border.
丁壯者引弦而戰, Adult men strung up their bows and went into battle.
近塞之人,死者十九, Nine out of ten border residents were killed,
except for the son because of his broken leg.
父子相保. Father and son were protected/both survived.
故福之為禍, Hence: Bad luck brings good luck
禍之為福. and good luck brings bad luck.
化不可極, This happens without end
深不可測也. and nobody can estimate it.

Plot and statement edit

The parable tells the story of a farmer who lives with his father close to the border with the barbarian territories. Without his fault and without being able to influence them, the farmer goes through various situations which all have important consequences for him:

  • His horse, a considerable part of his property and livelihood, runs away.
  • After weeks, his horse finds its way back and brings along other horses from the barbarian territories, thus increasing the farmer's property.
  • Trying to ride one of the wild horses, the farmer falls and breaks his leg - which reduces his physical capacities.
  • When the barbarians attack the borderland, the injured farmer is not drafted and does not have to join the battle to help with the defense - whereby he and his father survive and escape death.

These events are spontaneously judged by the neighbors, but the farmer's old father relativizes these judgments of the situations with his knowledge of Dào (i.e. The Right Way): Everything is an interplay of Yin and Yang, of light and shadow, of happiness and unhappiness, whether in the smallest details or in the great events of life. But since in the framework of human perception it is impossible to recognize the future consequences of an event (and thus to know what is really 'good luck' or 'bad luck'), the old man's reaction to these events is a stoic equanimity, and thus the appropriate reaction. He reacts with wu wei (Chinese: ; pinyin: wú wéi; i.e. 'not intervening', 'not acting') but this term should not be confused with apathy. In this knowledge he finds his calm and lasting, true happiness: he accepts life as it is.

The wisdom in the parable does not come from a teacher, a monk or a king, and it is not discussed at length. It comes from a simple, old man who shows this wisdom in very short sentences - repetitions, since there is nothing to add. This indicates that the knowledge of Dào is accessible to everyone.

Through the introductory and concluding sentences it is made clear that the parable shows only a small part of an infinite sequence: before the loss of the horse there were other lucky/unlucky situations and after fending off the barbarians, there will be others. E.g. the farmer can't use his injured leg properly and will depend on his old father to help and support him – and so on.

Potential origin, chengyu, proverbs, and delimitations edit

Stone sculpture of Laozi

A similar sentiment to the parable is expressed in chapter 58 of the Tao Te Ching by Laozi from the 6th to 4th century BC, namely, Misery is what happiness rests upon. Happiness is what misery lurks beneath. Who knows where it ends?[3]

The first known version of the story is found in the Huainanzi, which was compiled around 139 BCE.[citation needed]

Among chengyu (Chinese: 成語; pinyin: chéngyǔ), traditional Chinese idiomatic expressions, one finds the saying

Chinese: 塞翁失馬,焉知非福.
Sài wēng shī mǎ, yān zhī fēi fú[4][3]
The old man lost his horse, but it all turned out for the best.
The meaning is How could one know that it is not good fortune?[5]
Short versions
Language Idiom Literal meaning
Chinese 塞翁失馬 (Sài Wēng Shī Mǎ) The old man on the frontier lost (his) horse
Vietnamese 1. Tái ông thất mã
2. Tái ông mất ngựa
Korean 새옹지마 (Sae Ong Ji Ma) The horse of the old man on the frontier
Japanese 塞翁が馬 (Sai Ou Ga Uma)
Long versions
Language Idiom Literal meaning
Chinese 塞翁失馬 焉知非福 (Sài Wēng Shī Mǎ Yān Zhī Fēi Fú) The old man on the frontier lost (his) horse
how to know (if this is) fortuitous or not?
Vietnamese Tái ông thất mã, yên tri phi phúc
Korean 인간만사 새옹지마 (In Gan Man Sa Sae Ong Ji Ma) Everything in life (is like)
the horse of the old man on the frontier
Japanese 人間万事塞翁が馬 (Ningen/Jinkan Banji Sai Ou Ga Uma)

Western parallels – not referring to the parable – can be found in the following proverbs[6]

  • A blessing in disguise
  • Bad luck often brings good luck.
  • Every cloud has a silver lining.
  • Every ill-luck is good for something in a wise man's hand.
  • Every medal has its dark side.
  • Every tide has its ebb.
  • No great loss without some small gain
  • It is an ill wind that blows no one good.
  • Nothing is so bad in which there is not something good.

In most of these proverbs, the hopeful perspective points 'in the direction of good luck'.

More neutral is the statement of Hamlet in conversation with Rosenkranz:

  • ..., for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.[7][8]

Reception edit

Starting from the original parable, different versions of the story have been written, which are described in books and on the internet under titles such as The Taoist Farmer, The Farmer and his Horse, The Father, His Son and the Horse, The Old Man Loses a Horse, etc. The story is mostly cited in philosophical or religious texts and management or psychology advisors.

While in the original version the son loses his horse and the father comments, in recent (Western) versions a more direct view is found: The father himself is the horse's owner and directly comments on his situation. Most of these versions are longer and dramatically embellished, but the brevity and conciseness of the original text has the advantage of a simpler insight.

  • Alan Watts told this story during talks about Eastern Wisdom and modern life (1960–1969)[9]
  • Fritz B. Simon tells this story in his book Meine Psychose, mein Fahrrad und ich - Zur Selbstorganisation der Verrücktheit (1990),[10] a basic introductory and instructional text on modern systems theory and radical constructionism.
  • Richard Wiseman used a variation of the story in his book The Luck Factor (2003),[11] to describe the difference in the processing of misfortune and strokes of fate in 'lucky devils' and 'unlucky fellows'.
  • Coral Chen wrote and illustrated the children's book The Old Man Who Lost His Horse (2011) in English and Chinese.
  • Mascha Kaléko used this subject in the poem Chinesische Legende (1983).[12]
  • Charlie Wilson's War features the story during the celebration of news of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, near the end of the film. CIA agent Gust Avrakotos shares the story as a cautionary tale, while ascribing it to a "Zen master".

In popular culture edit

The story is used as a framing device for much of season four of the television show The Last Man On Earth. A variation of parable is told by the character "La Abuela" Gordillo (Alma Martinez) and is a recurring theme for several subsequent episodes. The deus ex machina in the season 4 episode Hamilton/Berg could be described as the culmination of seemingly lucky/unlucky events.

The Bluey episode The Sign features a retelling of the story that is referred back to several times throughout the episode.

Literature edit

  • Charles Le Blanc, Mathieu Rémi: Philosophes taoïstes. Volume 2: Huainan Zi. Gallimard, Paris 2003, ISBN 2-07-011424-4 (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. 494).
  • Claude Larre, Isabelle Robinet, Elisabeth Rochet de la Vallée: Les grands traités du Huainan zi. du Cerf, Paris 1993, ISBN 2-204-04652-3 (Variétés sinologiques. NS 75); translation of chapters 1, 7, 11, 13, 18.

References edit

  1. ^ This parable does not have a title in the Huainanzi.
  2. ^ Literally, Teachings Concerning Man or Principles in the World of Humans.
  3. ^ a b Gerda Wielander; Derek Hird (1 November 2018). Chinese Discourses on Happiness. Hong Kong University Press. p. 192. ISBN 978-988-8455-72-0.
  4. ^ Insup Taylor, M. Martin Taylor, Maurice Martin Taylor: Writing and Literacy in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1995, S. 69 (sai weng shi ma)
  5. ^ Heather Forest (1996). Wisdom Tales from Around the World. august house. p. 142. ISBN 978-0-87483-479-6.
  6. ^ Emanuel Strauss (12 November 2012). Dictionary of European Proverbs. Routledge. pp. 49 f. ISBN 978-1-134-86460-7.
  7. ^ William Shakespeare Hamlet, 2. scene, 2. curtain.
  8. ^ William Shakespeare (1857). Shakespeare's Hamlet, herausg. von K. Elze. Mayer. p. 35.
  9. ^ "Alan Watts: The Story of the Chinese Farmer", with reference to Alan Watts Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life: Collected Talks: 1960-1969, New World Library (2006)
  10. ^ Fritz B. Simon (2004). Meine Psychose, mein Fahrrad und ich: zur Selbstorganisation der Verrücktheit. Carl-Auer-Verlag. ISBN 978-3-89670-461-0.
  11. ^ Richard Wiseman (2003). The Luck Factor: Change Your Luck and Change Your Life. Random House. ISBN 978-0-7126-2388-9.
  12. ^ John Middleton (August 1994). The World of the Swahili: An African Mercantile Civilization. Yale University Press. p. 1. ISBN 978-0-300-06080-5.

External links edit