Can one weigh sea water with a ladle?

Zhang Ciyun
First appearances can be deceiving, leading to bad judgment.
Zhang Ciyun

There are many stories about the origin of the popular Chinese saying ren buke maoxiang, haishui buke douliang, or literally “a man cannot be judged by his looks just as sea water cannot be weighed by a ladle.”


rén bù kě mào xiàng


hǎi shǔi bù kě dǒu liáng

One of the stories is about a man called Ziyu, who was a student of Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479 BC). Ziyu had an ugly face, so Confucius didn’t have a good impression of him at first sight and treated him coldly. Soon after, Ziyu left his teacher and returned home to study on his own.

Actually, Ziyu was not only a very diligent student, but also highly talented. A few years later, he became a famous scholar in the regions south of the Yangtze River and had more than 300 students himself.

When Confucius learned of these achievements, he sighed and said: “I judged Ziyu only by his looks, and therein I have lost such a good student.”

From then on, the phrase “don’t judge a person by his looks” has been cited frequently in oral and written Chinese. It means almost the same as English sayings such as “don’t judge a book by its cover” or “clothes don’t make the man.”

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