Language buffs are trying to track down the Chinese proverb Mike Pence quoted

Chinese literature buff.
Chinese literature buff.
Image: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
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In a speech delivered yesterday (Oct. 4) in Washington D.C., US vice president Mike Pence went over a long list of China’s offenses—including espionage, meddling in US elections, and religious persecution, to name but a few such affronts.

Though the aggressive tone of the whole speech shocked observers of China-US relations, one nugget in particular caught the attention of some China watchers: a reference by Pence to what he said was an “ancient Chinese proverb” that goes, “Men see only the present, but heaven sees the future.” After dropping that saying, Pence said, “As we go forward, let us pursue a future of peace and prosperity with resolve and faith.”

Some Chinese speakers, unable to immediately think of the saying in its original Chinese, took to social media to seek answers, including David Moser, a linguist and author of A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language:

A few suggestions were initially thrown about, such as 人在做,天在看, a saying which means something like, “The heavens are watching everything the people do.” Another suggestion, proposed by China news blog SupChina, was 谋事在人,成事在天, which the site said translates to “Man proposes and God disposes.”

Later, other Chinese speakers including Michael Love, the founder of Chinese dictionary app Pleco, identified the proverb’s Chinese origin. Pence’s version of the saying was based on a translation by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, an American historian of the Song dynasty:

The original Chinese saying is 人见目前,天见久远, which originated from a Ming dynasty collection of stories called Stories Old and New, which chronicled the daily lives of people from different social classes. The proverb comes from a story about karma and the afterlife (link in Chinese). In the story, the King of Hell was asked why good people suffer while some bad people are able to prosper. The king used that saying to explain that mortals can only act with limited vision, while the heavens see what lies in the future.

Pence made another literary reference in his speech when he mentioned Lu Xun, a Chinese writer who lived in the late 19th century. Lu was known for his short stories that detailed people’s suffering, which also served as criticisms of government corruption at a time when China was leaving behind its feudalist past to build a modern republic. In his speech, Pence said:

The great Chinese storyteller Lu Xun often lamented that his country, and he wrote, “has either looked down at foreigners as brutes, or up to them as saints,” but never “as equals.” Today, America is reaching out our hand to China. And we hope that soon, Beijing will reach back with deeds, not words, and with renewed respect for America.

The line was originally published in a short essay in 1919 in the Chinese magazine New Youth.

The way that Pence used the quote, however, was quite different to Lu’s meaning, noted a Chinese blogger (link in Chinese) on Guancha, a Chinese news site focused on politics. Lu’s idea was to criticize extreme attempts by the Chinese government to modernize society without rooting out its feudal ideology. In Pence’s usage, however, Lu’s quote was manipulated to highlight what the vice president sees as China’s rejection of foreign countries that has led to frictions between China and the US.