A New Year Ignites New Beginnings

Chinese idioms celebrating positive change and renewal
By Cindy Chan, Epoch Times
January 7, 2016 6:58 am Last Updated: January 7, 2016 6:58 am

In the spirit of the New Year, as anticipation of positive change and renewal fills the air, the Epoch Times would like to share some inspiring Chinese idioms and stories to celebrate the bright new beginnings taking place this time of year.

“A great snowfall blankets [the earth] in the early morning; upon opening the door every manifestation of nature appears fresh and new.” — Chinese poet Xue Neng

This poetic verse likely depicts a scene that many people in the northern parts of the world experienced in the last few wintry weeks, some 1,200 years after Xue Neng wrote those words during the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618–907).

The clean blanket of snow is as if to remind the world of the purity of humanity’s original nature and the aspiration of reclaiming this potential.

Xue’s tranquil image of nature newly enveloped in snow, where everything under heaven has suddenly taken on an entirely different appearance, is the origin of the Chinese idiom “all manifestations of nature look fresh and new.”

The idiom also conveys the idea of renewal, recovery, or being restored to one’s original healthy state. With a clean, white blanket covering the earth, it is as if to remind the world of the purity of humanity’s original nature and the possibility and aspiration of reclaiming this potential.

‘To correct oneself and start anew’

The Chinese idiom “to correct oneself and start anew” originates in ancient China from an eloquent plea by a courageous young woman to rescue her father.

Ti Ying was the youngest of five daughters of a prominent doctor named Chunyu Yi. Chunyu Yi, originally a government official, later trained under a famous physician to become a doctor. He developed an outstanding reputation for his medical skills and was very much sought after by patients and their families. As a doctor, he travelled widely and offered treatment to many people.

However, in an unfortunate turn of events, one day someone filed a complaint against him in court, claiming that a patient died as a result of his treatment. The complainant was an influential man, and soon orders were received that Chunyu Yi was to be taken away to the capital city to face punishment.

This was during the early part of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220)—a time when a number of severe corporal punishments were in place, carried over from the previous Qin Dynasty (221–206 B.C.). The punishments were very cruel and inflicted grave bodily harm, including amputations of the nose, ears, or limbs, and tattooing of the face.

Ti Ying was a courageous daughter whose eloquent plea to rescue her father launched the reform of physical punishment in the early Han Dynasty. (Blue Hsiao/Epoch Times)
Ti Ying was a courageous daughter whose eloquent plea to rescue her father launched the reform of physical punishment in the early Han Dynasty. (Blue Hsiao/Epoch Times)

Ti Ying was determined to save her father. She followed him on the journey to the capital, Chang’an, and once they arrived, she found a scribe to help her draft a petition to the emperor.

She stated in her letter: “My father was once a court official, and the people all praised his honesty and integrity. However, he has now been sentenced to suffer dire physical punishment.

“My heart is severely pained. Once a man is put to death, he cannot come back to life. Similarly, once a man is disabled from bodily punishment, he cannot be restored. Even if he then wishes to rehabilitate and start anew, it will be impossible.

I beg you to spare my father and allow him the opportunity to make a fresh start.
— Ti Ying

“I am willing to redeem my father’s crime by becoming a slave servant for the rest of my life. I beg you to spare my father and allow him the opportunity to make a fresh start.”

Upon seeing Ti Ying’s petition, Emperor Wen was deeply moved by her filial piety and reasoning. He not only pardoned her father and declined her offer to become a slave, he also abolished the cruel physical punishments.

‘Let there be renewal every day’

Going back further into the past to look at another idiom about renewal offers a chance to rediscover the central figure of the Confucian tradition—the classic model of the Confucian scholar, or “junzi.” Such a person, often a scholar-official, is someone who is wholly dedicated toward cultivating virtue and pursuing diligent learning.

“Junzi” is often translated as a “gentleman,” a “man of virtue,” or a “noble person,” and literally means the “son of the ruler” or the “son of a king.” However, this Confucian ideal of conscientious study and constant moral self-refinement is intended for all people to aspire to and strive toward.

The ancient Chinese people particularly valued the cultivation of moral character. This can be illustrated by a story about Tang, the founder of the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 B.C.), which lasted over 600 years.

Tang, founder of the Shang Dynasty, constantly reminded himself of the strict requirements that a person of noble character is to meet every day. (Catherine Chang/Epoch Times)
Tang, founder of the Shang Dynasty, constantly reminded himself of the strict requirements that a person of noble character is to meet every day. (Catherine Chang/Epoch Times)

The “Classic of Rites,” or “Lijing,” one of the core Confucian texts, recorded that Tang had these words of cautionary advice engraved on his bathtub: “If you can renew yourself for one day, then do so every day, and let there be daily renewal.”

These words can certainly be applied to bathing, which removes dirt from the body and lets one feel refreshed and renewed. However, on a deeper level they are in fact a statement of admonition that conveys a serious principle, advising people to continuously elevate their moral character by doing good and eliminating vices.

If you can renew yourself for one day, then do so every day, and let there be daily renewal.
— 'Classic of Rites'

Doing so allows a person to make continuous progress in self-improvement and to stay on the right path for reaching higher and higher standards. Tang used these words to constantly motivate and remind himself of the strict requirements that a person of noble character is to meet.

While the original wording focused on “daily renewal,” people later added the idea of “monthly change” to form the idiom “daily renewal, monthly change.” The idiom is used to describe an ever-changing environment where rapid progress can be seen through new developments being achieved every day and every month.

Moving Positively Forward

Traditional Chinese culture also offers a number of other idioms that speak to the subjects of progress, inventiveness, and innovation.

For example, there is an idiom that reflects on “pushing away the old and bringing in the new.”

Another idiom depicts the scenario of having “both the ears and the eyes experiencing a pleasant/refreshing change.”

Still another idiom comments on “starting something new and different,” referring to a display of distinctiveness and originality that stands out from the rest.

Traditional Chinese culture offers a number of idioms that speak to the subjects of progress, inventiveness, and innovation.

As society develops, there are indeed many new pursuits that appear enticing in terms of improving people’s quality of life. At the same time, it is good to be able to take a broad view and contemplate issues from multiple perspectives in order to inform one’s choices.

One of the legendary Eight Immortals in Chinese mythology, Zhang Guo Lao, had an insightful and rather unique way of expressing his view of world developments.

Legend has it that Zhang Guo Lao was a Daoist hermit who lived during the Tang Dynasty, and he was known as an eccentric who rode backwards on his donkey.

The immortal Zhang Guo Lao had an insightful and rather unique way of expressing his view of world developments. (Yeuan Fang/Epoch Times)
The immortal Zhang Guo Lao had an insightful and rather unique way of expressing his view of world developments. (Yeuan Fang/Epoch Times)

He often travelled around the country with his fish drum, singing songs about Daoist philosophy. His lyrics spoke of how people were becoming lost and increasingly more corrupt by living for fame, profit, and the satisfaction of self-interest and various desires.

He lamented how many people even regarded these behaviours as “progress” or “good,” when they were contrary to the path that is truly meant for human beings.

It was believed that Zhang Guo Lao rode his donkey backwards to show that what many people think of as moving forward was actually moving backwards, and that following an upright path to return to one’s original virtuous nature would truly be moving positively forward.