For Mandarin language learners, people might tell you to look for the logic in the language, that words are made up of smaller units which you can add together to make a new word. Or if given a word, you might be able to work out its meaning from its constituent parts.
This is all very well, but sometimes it’s not quite so obvious. For example, you have the Chinese word for ‘contradiction’ which is 矛盾 (māo dùn). The first character means “lance, pike, or spear” and the latter means ‘shield’.
There is actually a famous story behind this, hopefully adding a little perspective to this contradictory contradiction.
There once was a man of Chu selling spears and shields who boasted, “My shields are so solid that nothing can dent them.” About his spears he said, “They are so sharp that nothing can dent them!” However, when someone asked him “What if I were to stab your shield with your spear?” the seller was unable to respond.
This very short but profound extract of a paradox morality tale comes from Han Feizi 韩非子, a philosopher whose ideology of Legalism has had an unparalleled effect on China since it was effectively adopted as the official approach to governing back in the Qin dynasty.
The text (which bears his own name) contains a collection of fundamental ideas. Today we can recognize this as a simple but brilliant paradox, used for all sorts of purposes and debates, but crucially it still represents at first sight what might just seem like another inexplicable Chinese word.
A couple of chengyu have also developed using this word, including 自相矛盾 “to self contradict”, which can be a useful way today to express your confusion. For example, “你这不是自相矛盾吗?” (Aren’t you contradicting yourself?)
In some ways comments that the Chinese language makes you think in stories has some merit. Moreover, the origins of this word could serve as a subtle warning from Han Feizi that sometimes things have two strengths which appear great, but in fact may contradict together. It’s therefore important to analyze what is the most beneficial. And the final message for anyone wanting to go into sales – just hope your buyers didn’t study Han Feizi.
Why not have a read of these 10 Chinese equivalents of English idioms?