Three are 'too many' for water-carrying

Zhang Ciyun
Buddhist lessons in laziness and shirking responsibility.
Zhang Ciyun

Buddhist monks, in a way, have contributed to the development of the Chinese language by appearing in a number of its popular expressions.

Here are two examples.

One Chinese idiom says sange heshang meishuihe, or literally “three monks living together will have no water to drink.”


sān gè hé shang méi shuǐ hē

The original version of this saying is much longer: “Living alone, a monk will carry home two buckets of water with a shoulder pole; with two monks living together, they will carry home one bucket of water by each shouldering one end of a pole. When three monks live together, no one goes to fetch the water.” In a modern sense, when more people working together, it suggests that everybody will rely on others to do a job or will assume that someone else will be doing it.

So, this Chinese idiom is same as the English saying, “Everybody’s business is nobody’s business.”

Another Chinese proverb involving monks is zuoyitian heshang zhuangyitianzhong, which translates directly as “being a monk for a day, he tolls the bell for a day.” This expression describes somebody who does the least expected of him and does not put himself out.


zuò yī tiān hé shang zhuàng yī tiān zhōng

This saying, which comes from the well-known, 16th century Chinese classic novel “Journey to the West,” sounds very similar to the present-day Chinese buzzword tangping (躺平), which literally means “lying down” and figuratively “slacking off” or “quiet quitting.”

It seems to share a similar meaning with the English saying, “Another day, another dollar.”

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