How to gain a horse by losing one: 塞翁失马

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Ever lost something that you held dear to your heart, like your phone, your Nintendo Switch or that notebook that your best friend bought you on your 13th birthday? You might feel pretty depressed about your loss and feel like it’s the end of the world, but the following story will make you realize that things might not turn out as bad as they seem.

There was an old man who lived at the border of China and another country. He loved to ride horses, and so when one of his horses ran away from the family pasture, he became incredibly depressed.

“Oh, how am I going to live without my horse?”

His neighbour, seeing his distress, went to visit him, and he said, “Don’t be too sad about it. Maybe this could turn into a good thing after all. Who knows?”

And it sure turned into a good thing, for a few months later, the horse returned to the pasture, bringing along with it another prized horse. The man was overjoyed, and said to his friends, “Maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing after all!”

The End…?

But wait, there’s more!

One day, the old man’s son was riding the new horse when suddenly he fell and broke his leg. From then on, he became a cripple and couldn’t walk properly anymore.

The old man became depressed again, realizing that his only son would forever remain disabled. His neighbour visited him again and said, “Maybe this could turn into a good thing, just like last time with the runaway horse.”

Ow, that must have hurt.

Turns out the neighbouring country invaded China the following year, and all the healthy young men in the area were enlisted in the army. The campaign against the enemy was rather bloody, and most of the soldiers in the army perished. The man’s son wasn’t drafted into the army because of his crippled leg, and therefore escaped almost certain death in the battlefield.

At this point, the old man finally understood that just because one event was bad at the beginning doesn’t mean it won’t turn out to be good in the end.

This story gives us the idiom 塞翁失马 (sàiwēngshīmǎ), which literally means “The old man at the border loses a horse,” but is better translated as “a blessing in disguise.”


For example, if you miss the bus to school and are forced to go to school another way, you might feel annoyed. But then you bump into a long-lost friend while getting to school, whom you would never have met had you been on time and taken the bus. In this situation, you can describe your missing the bus as a 塞翁失马 moment – a blessing in disguise.

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