Irregular Weekly Four 13: 大器晩成

My research assistant and I haven't finished gathering bits and pieces relating to the compound I wanted to post today, so here's something last-minute.

tai ki ban sei
great vessel late make

That third character, 晩, almost always means "night" in modern Japanese (and Chinese, for all I know), but it means "late" here because the phrase comes from oldity old-old Chinese -- specifically, the Tao te Ching, chapter 40 or 41 depending on your editor.

The first half of the chapter is concerned with how various types of people react to information about the Tao, and the last half of which explores why the Tao is so difficult to understand, via a series of paradoxical analogies:

Bright ways can seem dark; ways that go forward can seem to go backward; flat ways can seem bumpy. High virtue can seem lowly as a valley; boundless virtue can seem insufficient; healthy virtue can seem ailing. Innate truth can seem to change; great pureness can seem dirty, a square can seem cornerless. A great vessel is never quite finished. A great sound is never quite audible. A great image never quite has a shape.

(Note that if we used the modern meaning for 晩, we'd get "a great vessel is made overnight", which is exactly the opposite of what any self-respecting aphorism would want to say. Also note that 若, actually meaning "young", is here used to mean "is like" or "seems like" -- I think this is a phonetic thing.)

Anyway 大器晩成, in modern times, has come to mean something like "Rome wasn't built in a day". Unlike "Rome...", though, it can also refer to things that aren't a definite goal-oriented process, e.g. a friend who, although talented, remains unsuccessful.

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i like your translation of the passage. i actually never saw the original where 大器晚成 was taken from, and i didn't understand some parts of the passage, but i think you have it all correct =)


hmmmm.. i like this ... I'm a clay artist begining a new vessel this morning. Coiling round by round ... it may take me one month... yet I will work on three at a time. When I am through ... I will fire them .. then break them.

After a while I will 'restore' them .. one shard at a time.

we are all broken vessels .. healed and broken ... life after life ... moment after moment .. containers of spirit.


Thanks, Evelyn.. I do my best ;) reading things like this makes me want to study classical Chinese properly.

barefootboy.. woah. deep.

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