Cobblers and passers-by: When three is not a crowd

Zhang Ciyun
Emulating the spirit of an ancient statesman and military strategist.
Zhang Ciyun

In English, the idiom “three’s a crowd” refers to a third person spoiling the ideal combination of a couple. But in Chinese proverbs, “three” can mean a lot more than three.

We can see that in two oft-quoted Chinese proverbs.

One of the proverbs is sange chou pijiang, dingge Zhuge Liang, or literally “three cobblers, putting their heads together, can be as good as Zhuge Liang.”

The saying has a similar meaning to the English expression “two heads are better than one,” though it seems that in China we need three to do the same job.

三个臭皮匠,顶个诸葛亮

sān gè chòu pí jiàng, dǐng gè zhū gě liàng

Zhuge Liang (AD 181-234) was a famous Chinese statesman, military strategist and prime minister of the State of Shu Han (AD 221-263) during the Three Kingdoms period. He has long been deemed one of the most intelligent men the country has ever produced.

But, according to this proverb, ordinary people can accomplish the same feats as Zhuge Liang if they work together.

The other proverb is about three passers-by.

About 2,500 years ago, Confucius (551-479 BC), one of the best-known philosophers in the world, said: “One out of three random passers-by is bound to be good enough to be my teacher.”

Today, this Confucian quotation has become a common saying to teach modesty and the idea that one should never feel ashamed to learn from an intellectual inferior. In other words, anyone out of a group of people may have something to teach you.

三人行必有我师

sān rén xíng bì yǒu wǒ shī

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