Wisdom in Proverbs
Practical Uses in Daily Life
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There are hundreds of Korean proverbs, all of which originated from the thoughts-incorporated daily lives of our ancestors, allowing us to take a glimpse of their livelihood. They teach us sympathetic lessons that are applicable in our lives even today, showing deep wisdom and keen insight embedded in our ancestors’ minds. Even though the lifestyle and circumstances changed over centuries, the proverbs inherited from our precursors are still relatable and usable at modern times, put in use of people’s everyday conversation suiting to the situation. Transcending over time, the proverbs have provided us with valuable teachings.
Categories of Proverbs
Proverbs are often defined as concise and accurate expressions containing wit and wisdom, often derived from ordinary people’s daily lives and experiences. They are formed from abstraction of a particular instance, in which the situation itself becomes a figure of speech that contains a specific meaning or a lesson that corresponds to the situation. According to each situation, proverbs can be largely divided into four types: critical, didactic, experimental, and jocular proverbs.
Critical proverbs involve criticizing or admonishing the opponent about their behavior, pinpointing the blunder with the tone of sarcasm or scolding. An exemplary critical proverb would be “a frog forgets about its tadpole days,” meaning someone who stands at a high position belittles those at a lower position, not remembering the fact that they, too, once stood at the same position. This saying contains the teaching that no matter how well your being is, you should not look down upon the others because you are demeaning yourself in the past as well. Moreover, another critical proverb that makes you ponder about your own behavior is “a stool-stained dog rebukes a mud-stained dog.” This proverb aims to condemn those who have big faults yet tries to reproach those with minor faults, reminding them their own places.
Didactic proverb is the most abundant one of all, delivering a teaching as the core meaning. This type is rather instructive than admonishing, setting the truth and affirming what is right or wrong. For example, “knock on the stone bridge before crossing” is underscoring the importance of always being cautious, even with the most easy and familiar task because overlooking an easy task can result in a mistake. Adding on, “downstream can only be clear when upstream is clear” emphasizes the fact that those who set examples have a great impact on those who learns from them, meaning only when they act right will the followers learn good acts. Therefore, it is of their duty to demonstrate good deeds first. Furthermore, “a bull’s horn should be drawn at a breath” gives an advice that a task should not be procrastinated and be carried to action without further do—when a bull’s horn is drawn, heat is applied onto the horn to make the process quick and easy, at least when the heat is still effective, suggesting that the work be done when there is higher energy or will.
Moreover, experimental proverbs give a prediction about a situation, based on the occurrence of a similar situation in previous and the lesson derived from it. To exemplify, “a theft brings cramps on his own feet” is a proverb that anticipates a situation, where a person feels too guilty about his own sin that he unintentionally exposes it by himself. This saying is referring to the situation in which someone who committed a bad deed flinches everytime a similar issue is mentioned and acts abnormally, eventually hinting that he is guilty for it. Also, “underneath the lamp is the darkest” predicts that the solution to a problem is not always far away, indicating that you should always be watchful in close approximates.
Lastly, jocular proverbs are expressions that function like similes, by using them as a comparison to a situation. “Pillaging and eating a flea’s liver” is comparable to a situation where someone who is affluent is benefiting from someone who is much underprivileged. Since a flea is an extremely small insect, taking out its liver to eat is pillaging off someone who owns very little, almost exploiting them. Additionally, “licorice in pharmacy” virtually means “an indispensable thing” due to the omnipresence of licorice in any oriental medicine stores. Thus,if something is said to be the licorice in pharmacy, it means that thing is always present in a place or situation.
In short, proverbs can be used to describe a situation briefly in one expression or to make a witty comparison. Stemming from the daily lives of our ancestors, each and every proverb conveys a valuable meaning and teaching that we can easily encounter in our daily lives as well.
Jeon Chae-yun firstname.lastname@example.org
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