Shanghai Wall Wisdom

Spotted on a wall in Shanghai:

Shanghai Wall Wisdom

It reads:


Because it’s from classical Chinese, it’s written in traditional characters and also reads right to left. It’s also a pretty simple introduction to classical Chinese, so if you’re intermediate or higher, it’s worth a closer look.


Even in small matters, do no evil.
Even in small matters, do not fail to do good.

A few notes on the classical (or harder) Chinese:

  • : “do not” for commands (also used in formal modern Mandarin)
  • : “because” (classical Chinese)
  • : a tricky grammar word usually indicating contrast (also used in formal modern Mandarin)
  • : “to do” (classical Chinese)
  • : “it” (classical Chinese)

Words like and are especially tricky because they can mean so many different things! 慢慢来… it takes time to absorb all those different usages.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Some people get a little twinge in their knee when it’s about to rain. I get one when a friend is about to write a blog post about Classical Chinese, and in keeping with my customary punctuality, I apparently only notice the twinge about four months after the fact. Anyway: I’d render these lines as literally something more like “Do not, on account of the evil being minor, do it; do not, on account of the good being minor, not-do it.” Or “Do no evil, no matter how minor; refrain from no good, no matter how small.”

    Someone who has a more systematic understanding of Classical Chinese than I do may want to correct me here, but I read 而 here as doing the same thing it does in constructions like 席地而坐 (“treat the ground as a seat and sit,” i.e. “sit on the ground”) or 擦肩而过 (“brush shoulders and pass,” i.e. “pass by someone”) or 半途而废 (“[go] halfway and give up,” i.e. “quit halfway”) — connecting verbs/verb phrases in a series, but not really contributing much on the meaning side of things. It definitely can indicate contrast in some cases (and sometimes it can be sort of ambiguous as to whether it’s contrasting things or not, as in 半途而废), but to whatever extent it has a meaning here, I think it’s probably just “and then.”
    Incidentally, this is a quote from the 三国志 Sanguo zhi, or “Records of the Three Kingdoms” — the historical work that was later heavily fictionalized to become the basis for the more famous “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.”

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