Is this really an "ancient Chinese proverb"?
August 29, 2013 9:33 AM   Subscribe

I very much like the sentiment of this quotation, which an acquaintance informs me is an ancient Chinese proverb. But I'd appreciate any thoughts on its actual provenance, especially because I have no idea whether this statement (or something like it) is an ancient Chinese proverb or not. "The faintest stroke of ink in a record-book is more illuminating than the most vividly-recalled memory." Thanks for any suggestions!
posted by Mr. Justice to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
It is certainly not an "ancient Chinese proverb" (almost nothing you see cited as such is, and this doesn't even try to approximate the form); since I'm not finding anything even remotely similar via Google Books, my assumption would be that your acquaintance (or an acquaintance of your acquaintance) made up the "quote" and used a handy attribution (it could equally well have been Mark Twain or any of the usual suspects).
posted by languagehat at 9:52 AM on August 29, 2013

It sounds like something from a closing argument in a case involving eye-witness testimony. And if it's not, I'll certainly use it myself.
posted by Capri at 10:00 AM on August 29, 2013

So, here it is attributed to Confucius, which is probably a good indication that it is fake: The palest ink is more reliable than the most powerful memory.
posted by 256 at 10:00 AM on August 29, 2013

After some more searching, I have found many slight variation on this quote going back to at least the 60s. Most often it seems to be in the "palest ink" version I posted above. These are varyingly attributed to "Confucius" or "Chinese Proverb." Confucius seems very unlikely. Further, if it did actually have an ancient Chinese origin, I expect that I would have been able to find more than zero commentary on it from academic sources.

So, your acquaintance certainly didn't make it up, and probably legitimately believes it to be an ancient Chinese proverb. My money, however, is on it having been been made up by either a bookmark salesman or fortune cookie manufacturer sometime in the first half of the 20th century.
posted by 256 at 10:13 AM on August 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Surprise! It's probably an authentic proverb. A native speaker would have to verify.

The Chinese rendering -- 广记不如淡墨 (literally, a powerful memory cannot compare with pale ink) -- popped up in collections of traditional Chinese-language sayings when I searched for it on Google Books.

Regardless of its origins, it's a great quote. I came across the English translation myself years ago, and it's stuck with me ever since (so much for having to write things down to remember them).
posted by far flung at 10:28 AM on August 29, 2013 [17 favorites]

Best answer: Wow, apparently I was wrongity-wrong-wrong! Thanks for doing that research; now I'm curious about how far back it goes.
posted by languagehat at 11:33 AM on August 29, 2013

Best answer: I found a match for this phrase (廣記不如淡墨) in a reference work on idiomatic phrases (熟語大全), where it is credited to a Qing dynasty work (政學錄). I would venture to guess that the phrase was introduced into English usage through Arthur H. Smith's Proverbs and common sayings from the Chinese, which gives "The palest ink is better than the most capricious memory." Given that he doesn't cite a source and doesn't include the phrase in his chapter on idioms derived from classical works, and that I didn't find a match for this phrase in any text before Ming, I imagine that it started floating around in the late imperial period.
posted by mustard seeds at 12:07 PM on August 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Everybody above: I am so impressed by and grateful for your work!
posted by Mr. Justice at 1:38 PM on August 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wrote to a friend who knows this kind of thing, and this was the response:

According to this

PUJIANGZONGHENG MONTHLY 2 0 1 2 年1 2 月刊 /zx/pjzh/2012-12.pdf‎
Aug 31, 2012 - 要,清代康熙间官 至巡抚的郑端介绍经. 验说:“凡有欲行欲问事,即记之袖中手. 摺,俟明日查行,所谓广记不如淡墨也”. (《政学录》)。 再次是调查咨询 ...


p. 72b (half the way down the page), it goes back to the Kangxi reign period of the Qing dynasty and comes from juan ("scroll") of a work called the 政学录 by 尹会一.
posted by languagehat at 3:18 PM on August 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in the new Ted Chiang story thread.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:20 PM on August 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The modern, colloquial, mum-speak version of this proverb (yes, it actually is an ancient Chinese proverb, how about that) is 好记性不如烂笔头 (hao3 ji4 xing bu4 ru2 lan4 bi3 tou2), which literally means "a good memory is no match for a bad pen nib".

Source: native speaker (me).
posted by fix at 11:07 AM on August 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

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