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May 13, 2023

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The drawbacks of distant relatives and distant water

BOTH in Chinese and English, we find similar sayings about close neighbors and distant relatives.

One Chinese proverb says yuanqin buru jinlin, or literally “a neighbor close by is better than a family far away.” In English, people might say: “Better is a neighbor that is near than a brother far off.”

The Chinese expression was first uttered by Qin Jianfu, a dramatist of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and later quoted in China’s classic novel “Outlaws of the Marsh.”

In fact, the Chinese have a much older expression in the same vein, but from a different angle.

This old saying reads yuanshui jiubuliao jinhuo, which translates directly as “distant water cannot put out a nearby fire.”

This phrase comes from one of the most important philosophical classics in ancient China, written by Han Feizi during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).

In his eponymous book, Han quotes someone saying: “If there is a fire, the water is to be taken from the sea. Although there is a lot of water in the sea, the fire will not be extinguished. The water far away cannot put out the fire nearby.”

The above two Chinese proverbs tell us we should build close relationships with neighbors and hoard some vital resources in case of emergencies that require timely response.


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