Misfortune may be a blessing in disguise. Who's to say?

Zhang Ciyun
Ancient tale of a man, his mare and a crippled son suggests that every cloud has a silver lining if you look for it.
Zhang Ciyun

Around 400 BC, Lao Tzu, a top philosopher of ancient China, said in “Tao Te Ching:” “Good fortune has its roots in disaster, and disaster lurks in good fortune. Who knows how to separate the two since there is no clear dividing line between them.”

Lao Tzu’s concept of luck and fortune probably can best be illustrated by a popular Chinese proverb and the story behind it.

The Chinese proverb says saiweng shima, yanzhi feifu, or “when the old man on the frontier lost his mare, who could say that it wasn’t a blessing?”


sài wēng shī mǎ, yān zhī fēi fú

The saying comes from a story in a book entitled the “Writings of Prince Huainan,” which was compiled by a group of scholars during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 25).

According to the story, there was an old man long ago who had a mare and lived near the Great Wall. One day, the mare fled into an area belonging to tribes of ethnic minority people. Upon learning this, his friends and relatives came to console him. But the old man said: “Who says this may not be a blessing?”

A few months later, the mare came back with several fine horses following her. The friends and relatives all came to congratulate the old man. The old man replied: “Who says this must be a good thing?”

One day, the old man’s son fell off one of the new horses and ended up a cripple. The friends and relatives came to express their sympathy. The old man repeated his words: “Who says this may not be a blessing?”

Later, the minority tribes invaded the area inside the Great Wall and the son, as a cripple, was exempted from military service. Together with his father, they survived the border war.

So, the Chinese proverb tells people that misfortune may be a blessing in disguise and loss sometimes spells gain.

In English, when people try to express a similar idea, they may quote sayings such as “every cloud has a silver lining,” or “what goes around comes around.”

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