Month: March 2011

揠苗助长: Pulling Shoots to Help Them Grow

A man from Song was concerned by his sprouts’ lack of growth and, hoping to encourage them, began pulling them up one by one. When he finished, he returned to his family looking weary and said, “Today has been exhausting! I have been helping the sprouts grow!” His family hastened to go and see it, but the small sprouts had withered.

Few in China are not helping shoots to grow. Those who feel it is useless give it up and quit weeding the sprouts. But as for the one who tries to help them grow by pulling them up, not only is it useless, but it also harms the sprouts.

-from the Book of Mencius, Gongsun Chou, Part I. This (liberal) translation from the classical Chinese is my own.

Takeaway lesson of the day: The phrase “pulling spouts to help them grow” is a moderately common idiom in modern standard Chinese. Most recognize its meaning without knowing the original story above. I’ve posted this today for my friends and colleagues who often ask me about China’s “progress”. Will China democratize? Will China address accusations of human rights abuse? As Mencius aptly states, there are few in China who are not helping the sprouts of progress to grow. However, aggressive domestic reform and overzealous, hypocritical international badgering by western nations is akin to the man from Song pulling his sprouts out of the ground in an attempt to make them grow faster. Radical change in a nation that prides itself in 5,000+ years of relative cultural stability will not take place over night. To be sure, China is changing; the waves of political, social, and cultural reform that began in the early 20th century continue to spread to this day. But do not be so anxious to call for an American-style political revolution in a region where even short-lived dynasties have endured longer than the United States.