Not quite two months ago, I was contacted by Stone Bridge Press about reviewing a recently published book of theirs. That book is Chinese Proverbs and Popular Sayings: With Observations on Culture and Language by Qin Xue Herzberg and Larry Herzberg. This review will not be anything resembling an academic book review that would be published in a journal, it’s just my thoughts about the book’s usefulness.

If you represent a publishing house and would like to send me a book to review that is relevant to the scope of this blog, please get in touch by leaving a comment on one of my posts. Please bear in mind that I reserve the right to give a completely honest and open review. I am not affiliated in any way with any publisher or author.

So here’s the review, as promised!

Stone Bridge Press recently contacted me about reviewing a new book of theirs, Chinese Proverbs and Popular Sayings: With Observations on Culture and Language by Qin Xue Herzberg and Larry Herzberg. When they first contacted me about the book, I assumed it was a book of 成語, probably catered to the person just starting out in Chinese, or those who might pick it up out of a passive interest in “Chinese wisdom”, rather than scholars or serious students of the language.

I was partly correct in that assumption. It is not a book of 成語, but a book of sayings. These include both 成語 and 俗語. The book is not aimed at scholars, or even serious students of Chinese, but is aimed at a more popular audience. That isn’t to say that serious students won’t find anything useful here – quite the contrary, in fact. But if you’re looking for a good reference book, this isn’t the one.

OK, so first let’s talk about what could use improvement here.

This is perhaps a personal thing, but to me this book’s biggest weakness is that it only has simplified characters. Simplified characters are awful, ugly, and worst of all many are simply wrong from a historical perspective, so in my mind it makes little sense to publish a book purporting to talk about “Chinese wisdom” and the “ancient…sayings of Confucius and Lao Zi”, and then publish the book using only the result of a half-baked, failed plan to romanize the Chinese language. I have nothing against including the simplified characters in the book (let’s face it, most students of Chinese only, or at least chiefly, learn this botched system, and it’s important to be able to read anyway), but I think the traditional, historically correct characters ought to be there no matter what.

Another thing which would greatly improve the book’s usefulness is a more thorough index. Really, this is a bigger flaw than the whole simplified character thing, it’s just that that’s an issue closer to my heart. The sayings in this book are indexed by English translation only. So when I went to find out if 兔子不吃窩邊草 was in the book, I had to just guess how the authors may have translated it and look up the English. Well, they could have started the translation with a different word than I would have, so as a result, I still don’t know if that one’s in the book. Having an additional index for the original sayings would have made more sense, in my opinion.

Another flaw in the book is that I can find no references whatsoever. I realize the authors may have considered this to be outside of the book’s scope, but I can’t imagine it would be very difficult to add a short note like (Analects: Shu Er 22), and it would greatly benefit those of us who would like to look some of these sayings up and read them in their original contexts.

OK, so admittedly these three things are fairly nitpicky, but they reflect what I would have personally suggested to the authors had they asked my take on it before publishing (not that my opinion is worth much, but I’m being hypothetical here). They’re small, easy changes that would have increased the book’s appeal by a really large margin.

But all in all, it’s actually a quite handy little book that I’m glad to have. I originally thought I was going to mention those three points above, maybe a few things I thought were good about it, and leave it at that. Those three weaknesses are things that leave a particularly bad taste in my mouth, so my overall impression of the book was negative.

But then this morning I was writing an essay for my class and couldn’t remember how to phrase “money can’t buy happiness” in Chinese. I pulled the book out, and even though I didn’t find that particular phrase, when I flipped to the section with money-related sayings, I found a lot of really useful stuff. I used several of the sayings in my paper, which was a response to a recent newspaper article about people leaving their jobs for lower-paying, lower stress jobs and discovering that they were happier for it. 壺中無酒難留客 and 一文錢急死英雄漢 seemed apropos along with a few others plucked from other sections in order to support my point. My teacher was impressed at my accurate understanding of how the sayings were used, and particularly at the way I was able to take some of them, change a character or two and have a new saying of my own which was a play on the original (all of which have been said before by someone more clever than myself, I’m sure).

The authors mention in the preface that “Wit and originality are displayed by cleverly changing the proverb’s wording to say things in a fresh and humorous way”, and that’s exactly what I was testing out when I did that in my paper. It worked, and like I said, my teacher was impressed.

So there’s where the book shines. It probably isn’t something you’re going to want to study intensively. It isn’t something you’ll use to research the origin of a phrase you heard or read. But if you’re writing a paper and wondering if there’s some phrase that will sum up what you’re trying to say in a nice, succinct, widely recognized way (something worth more in Chinese writing than in English writing where it can sound trite), then this is the book you’ll want. Space in my backpack comes at a premium this term because I’m studying from so many different books, but this book is one of the few that will be in there at all times. And if you’ve seen me walking around campus with my absurdly over-stuffed red backpack, you’ll know that this is no small accomplishment. Hopefully some of the shortcomings can be addressed in a future edition, and then it will be all the more useful.

Thumbs up and 「讚」 to the Herzbergs for this book!

From the publisher:

Qin Xue Herzberg and Larry Herzberg’s Chinese Proverbs and Popular Sayings: With Observations on Culture and Language (979-1-933330-990) captures the enduring wisdom of China with nearly 600 proverbs in Chinese, pinyin and English translation. Designed for inspirational browsing and for students of language and culture, the collection contains both the ancient, earnest sayings of Confucius and Lao Zi (“A thousand-mile journey starts under your feet”) and the homespun truths of everyday (“Teachers open the door; you enter by yourself”). Organized into thematic sections, the text provides commentary on how the Chinese have looked at the world throughout their history. False or poorly-translated sayings attributed to the Chinese are corrected and expressions borrowed from the West are celebrated, proving that regardless of origination “all men are brothers” – we are all one family. Chinese Proverbs and Popular Sayings is both an elegant introduction to Chinese proverbs and a clever educational resource for non-native speakers to improve with translation.
Qin Xue Herzberg is a native speaker of Chinese and a graduate of Beijing Normal University in Chinese Language and Literature. For the past twelve years she has been the upper-level Chinese language professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Larry Herzberg studied Chinese for five years at Vanderbilt University before doing his Master’s and Ph.D. work in Chinese Language and Literature at Indiana University. In 1980 he founded the Chinese Language Program at Albion College and then did the same at Calvin College in 1984. For the past three decades he has taught the Chinese language at the college level. They are also the co-authors of China Survival Guide and Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar.