How can a small bird know the ambitions of a great swan?

Zhang Ciyun
Some people are driven by grand ambitions that others are too narrow-minded to comprehend.
Zhang Ciyun

Chen Sheng was one of the top leaders of a large peasant rebellion against the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), the first dynasty of Imperial China. After he died in 208 BC, Chen was posthumously known as King Yin.

When young, Chen labored as a poor farmhand. One day while in a field with a group of other farmworkers, he took a break and climbed to the top of a nearby hill. He gazed skyward for a long while, then finally told his fellow laborers: “If I become rich someday, I won’t forget you all.”

The others laughed and asked him how a common laborer like him could ever become rich.

Chen sighed and responded: “Alas, how can a small bird understand the ambitions of a great swan?”

Chen’s saying has come down the years as the popular proverb yanque anzhi honghu zhizhi, which means that a common fellow can’t read the mind of a great man and small minds can’t comprehend big spirits.


yàn què ān zhī hóng hú zhī zhì

It’s a pity when one can’t wrap one’s mind around something beyond comprehension. But it’s worse to unfairly judge another person’s noble ideals or good intentions with a petty mind.

The latter can be described by another Chinese saying: yixiaoren zhixin, duojunzi zhifu, which may be translated as “to gauge the heart of a gentleman with one’s own mean measure.”


yǐ xiǎo rén zhī xīn, duó jūn zǐ zhī fù

Nowadays, the first Chinese proverb here is often used by someone with big ambitions to describe feeling surrounded by small-minded people. And the second one is often cited to criticize somebody who is cynical or skeptical of the integrity or good intentions of others.

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