Chinese Idiom Explained: 塞翁失马, 焉知非福

July 30, 2022

塞翁失马, 焉知非福 sài wēng shī mǎ, yān zhī fēi fú is a popular Chinese idiom that comes from Huai Nan Zi, Ren Jian Xun by Liu An (c. 179-122 BC), which can be literally translated as “a blessing in disguise” in English.

In this blog, we want to share with you both the Chinese and the English retelling of the original story behind 塞翁失马, 焉知非福 sài wēng shī mǎ, yān zhī fēi fú, what it means, as well as how to use it in a sentence.

Let’s dive in!

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Once upon a time, an old stableman was living around the Great Wall. One day, his horse ran off on its own towards the Hu people, a tribe inhabiting northern China. Everyone was consoling the old stableman. He said: “Why are you so sure this is not going to bring me luck?”

After a few months, his horse returned from the Hu people with one of their steeds, and everyone was congratulating the old stableman. He said again: “Why are you so sure this is not the start of a calamity?”

He now had a wealthy home with a noble steed. His son loved riding the horse, but one day he fell off the horse and broke his leg. Everyone was comforting the old stableman, and he said again: “Why are you so sure that this not going to bring me luck?”

A year passed, and a large troop of Hu people invaded the Great Wall area. These strongmen waved their bows and arrows enticing the other side to start a war. Among the people from the Great Wall area who fought, nine out of ten died, and the survivors were left with severe injuries. But because of the stableman’s son’s broken leg, he was spared from the fight, and the father and son were safe.

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This idiom tells us that even though you might run into hardship or misfortune, there still might be a silver lining. It also means in some cases, setbacks can become a good thing.

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塞上sài shàng (Border area, traditionally the area around the Great Wall)


老翁 lǎo wēng (An old man)


shī (Lost) 马 (Horse)


焉知 yān zhī (How is one to know?)


fēi(is not)福(Good fortune)


例句(Example Sentences)

Zhè cì kǎoshì bù lǐxiǎng, yě suànshì sàiwēngshīmǎ, yān zhī fēi fú ba, zhǐyào ràng hái zǐ rènzhēn zǒngjié jiàoxùn, xià cì jiù yīdìng néng qǔdé hǎo chéngjī.
This exam was less than ideal, but it might be a blessing in disguise. As long as my child can take this lesson seriously, I’m sure next time he will get a good grade.

Yǎnqián chī diǎn kuī bùyòng tài jǔsàng, yào zhī sàiwēngshīmǎ, yān zhī fēi fú?
You don’t need to be so depressed from one mishap, it might be a blessing in disguise.

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Want to learn about more Chinese Idioms? We have more in store for you!