Saturday, October 24, 2009

What does 苟且偸安 mean?

Yesterday, I bought a Korean book entitled "이이화의 한문 공부," which teaches the basics of classical Chinese writing. I bought the book not only because it was the only book in the store that taught the basics of classical Chinese, but also because it looked pretty good, at least in the store. However, after getting it home and reading more of it, I noticed a few problems.

One of the problems with the book is that it assumes the reader already knows the Korean pronunciations for the Chinese characters used in many of the book's example sentences. In other words, the book gives you the Chinese sentences and their Korean translations, but it does not give the Korean pronunciations for the Chinese characters. That is not a big problem for me since I know the pronunciations of most of the characters used in the book, but I would still like to have the pronunciations. Another problem is that some of the translations seem to be incorrect. Could such a thing be possible? Is it just because I am a beginner and do not know any better? Consider the following example:


구차하게 눈앞의 안일함만을 취함

Clumsily take only the peace in front of our eyes.

The Korean is the author's translation of the Chinese, and the English is my translation of the author's Korean, but is it correct?

In Korean, 苟且 (구차) can mean "poverty" or "clumsiness," and 偸安 (투안) means "desire the peace in front of one's eyes" (눈앞의 안일을 탐냄), so the author seems to have just combined and then tweaked the two sentences for his translation, which seems awkward either way. Does "Clumsily take the peace in front of our eyes" make much sense?

Separately, 偸安 (투안) means only "steal" (偸) and "peace" (安), so where did "in front of our eyes" (눈앞의) come from? I think it came from the 且 (차) in the original sentence since 且 can mean "in the future" (장차). In other words, 苟且偸安 (구차투안) may have originally been translated as "[They] clumsily (苟), in the future (且), take (偸) the peace (安)," except that "in the future" was translated as "in front of our eyes" (눈앞의). Later, when 苟且 and 偸安 were separated and placed in the dictionary, the meaning "in front of our eyes" stayed with 偸安 portion. Anyway, that is just my theory.

I think the above Chinese sentence has been mistranslated by Koreans. Why not simply translate it as follows?

"Poverty (苟且) steals (偸) peace (安)."

My translation makes much more sense because, generally speaking, peace and prosperity go together, but poverty tends to lead to unrest, which can be paraphrased as, "Poverty steals peace."


  1. 苟且偸安, like many ancient four-character Chinese expressions, is idiomatic. Quite often with such expressions you can't understand the full meaning by translating each character independently. The entire expression has acquired a certain meaning because of the context in which it was first used.

    This expression means "to seek only temporary comfort (without thinking of the future)". It appears in a Song dynasty text as part of the longer expression "苟且偷安而不知长久之计".

    苟且 means "to drift along, live carelessly in the moment" and 偷安 means "seek out ease/comfort". Both of these terms can still be found in modern Chinese dictionaries. There is also a related expression 苟且偷生 "drag out a worthless existence".

    I agree that the Korean explanation that you cited is not very illuminating. But the "peace in front of your eyes" part is reasonably accurate.

  2. This seems too erudite for me. 고사성어 sometimes have a big leaps of faith too. they have the characters which mean something and then all taken together they mean something completely out of the blue.

  3. Their idioms must be one of the reasons the Chinese have a reputation for being inscrutable.

  4. I don't think there's anything particularly MORE inscrutable about idioms in Chinese than idioms in any language. By definition, the meaning of an idiom can't be determined from the meaning of its parts.

    Consider English phrases like "a stitch in time saves nine" or "make ends meet". If you don't already know these phrases, you simply can't determine what these expressions mean by looking up all the words in a dictionary. You have to look up the idiom as a whole. And then to understand why those combinations of words have acquired the idiomatic meanings, you would have to know something about the history of usage of the term or the backstory behind it.

    Even an expression like "tried and true" is hard to understand from the meaning of its component words unless you have a really good dictionary that includes obsolete meanings. "Tried and true" means "tested and found reliable", not "attempted and correct". But these are archaic meanings; they are still found in the expression "tried and true", but are much less commonly seen when the words "try" or "true" are used on their own.

    Idiomatic expressions are just one more unit of language that has to be learned on its own terms!


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