沉默是金 translates to “silence is golden”.
In modern English, silence is golden can mean it is better to keep quiet in order to not incriminate someone or yourself, similarly how lawyers tell their clients that loose lips sink ships. Or it could mean silence is a blissful state, kind of like how parents feel when all their children are finally asleep. Or it could provide cover to an introvert’s temperament, a justification for why we opt to quietly observe instead of engaging in verbal diarrhea spitting out every thought the moment it develops in the mind. Or it could mean, if you have nothing nice to say, then don’t say nothing.
The use of 沉默是金 is just as varied as silence is golden but without the negative interpretations like “you should keep silent, or else!”. I recall the male protagonist in Chinese dramas and movies, the guy who is the cool, calm, collected archetype who spares minimal words while his talkative, clumsy friend is there for comedic effect. My friend noticed very early on in high school, the moment that he stopped talking, the more people listened to him when he does talk. Another friend in high school, an aspiring car mechanic, taught himself car repair by practicing on the cars of our high school classmates and even teachers. How was able to persuade them that he knew how to fix cars? He kept silent while he worked on their engines, not revealing any doubt or uncertainty that was running through his mind. They assumed he knew what he was doing.
So, well, what is it? What is the true meaning of 沉默是金 and silence is golden? Do they mean the same thing? If we look into the history of its usage, will we find some insights on how we should view silence? Here, I explore.
Silence is Golden
One of the earliest use of silence is golden is by Thomas Carlyle in 1833, in his novel, Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinions of Herr Reufeldröchkh, a mostly philosophical and sometimes satirical novel. He writes:
Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together; that at length they may emerge, full-formed and majestic, into the daylight of Life, which they are thenceforth to rule. Book III page 174
He summarizes this section on silence with “Speech is silvern, silence is golden” that he translates from Swiss German:
Sprechen ist silbern, schweigen is golden
The proverb definitely presents itself with a transcendentalist quality like the Solitude chapter in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. It talks of a state of being, a state where one can be in silence, in solitude. A state where one can hear the voice of his own thoughts.
Silence is golden later appears in 1853 in Richard Chenevix Trench’s On the Lessons in Proverbs where he writes:
Thus, how many of these popular sayings and what good ones there are on the wisdom of governing the tongue, -I speak not now of those urging the duty, though such are by no means wanting, — but the wisdom, prudence, and profit of knowing how to keep silence as well as how to speak. The Persian, perhaps, is familiar to many: Speech is silvern, silence is golden. — pages 63–64
There are other sources that attribute this phrase towards Eastern Mediterranean origin.
In the fifth volume (1871)of the Journal of Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain lists the proverb:
حكي من فضه و السكوت من ذهب
“Speech is of silver, silence is of gold.” — An old proverb in Syria; a comparatively new saying amongst us. — page 347
German sources also point to Eastern Mediterranean origin.
Franz Lorenz von Dombay in 1795 collects and translates in Popular-Philosphie der Araber, Persicer und Türken (Popular Arabic, Persion, and Turkish Philosophy):
Reden ist Silber , Schweigen aber ist Gold
Speaking is silver, silence is gold. — page 194
So far, we know that the original use of silence is golden does NOT mean to NOT talk. Silence is golden does not mean there is a risk to incriminate someone or yourself, a risk to reveal secrets, a risk to utter words that you cannot unsay as they say, putting the toothpaste back in the toothpaste tube. It does not mean that speech is not valuable. We know that speech is valuable like silver, but silence is more valuable. When is silence more valuable than speaking? It will be interesting to see how حكي من فضه و السكوت من ذهب is used, particularly within any ancient texts. Let me know if you have found anything. I have searched and found none so far.
So is silence more valuable than speech or in other words, is speech not as valuable as silence? Digging into the history of 沉默是金 will give us some clues.
Chinese texts do not seem to compare silence to speech as Western sources do. In fact, looking at the Chinese characters for silence is interesting. 默 means quiet and 沉 means submerged. Submerged in quietness, in silence, seems like it has a contemplative, even meditative quality to it. Like other Chinese proverbs, 沉默是金 has a story behind it which I found on https://idiom.wlps.kl.edu.tw/story/36204. It is a story of three gold men which I translate and interpret as follows.
Three Gold Men
An envoy from a small nation visited the emperor of China and brought tribute of three golden statues. All three statues were of an identical man. The emperor was pleased having received the tribute until one of the men in the envoy presented a puzzle to the emperor.
Which of the three gold men is the most valuable?
The emperor examined the three gold men and thought about the many ways one statue could be more valuable than the others. The emperor also invited a master craftsman to examine the workmanship of each one. The master craftsman even weighed the statues and found it to be of the same weight. The emperor was becoming distressed and felt he could lose face: how could a country as great as China cannot answer a puzzle presented by a smaller nation? The envoy was about to return home without receiving an answer to the puzzle from the emperor.
Finally, an old minster of the palace thought of a way to solve the puzzle. The emperor called the envoy to the main hall of the palace and the old minister took out three straws of rice. He inserted the first straw of rice through the ear of the first gold man. The straw of rice went out the other ear on the other side of the statue. He then inserted the second straw of rice through the ear of the second gold man. The straw fell out through the mouth of the second gold man. Finally, he inserted the third straw of rice through the ear of the third gold man. The straw of rice fell into the belly of the third gold man without making a sound. The old minister then said, “The third gold man is the most valuable.” The envoy nodded their heads yes.
There are two aspects to the story that demonstrates 沉默是金。
The gold men are identical in terms of weight, material, and workmanship but what made one more valuable than the other is the ability to contain more value than itself. The first man had something that went through one ear and out the other. The second man has something inserted into ear and went straight out the mouth, kind of like how people who watch TED talks and then become instant experts promoting the bite size nuggets of knowledge they picked up. What makes the third gold man more valuable is that anything added to it will make it more valuable: its value of the other two gold men is itself while the value of the third gold man is itself PLUS anything it can contain.
Nan Huai Chin is explaining how he was able to obtain his position, most likely when he became a military commander at the age of 21 and cites Confucius. Confucius explained to his student that in order to become a good official, the student will need to be knowledgable and to be knowledgable is to learn more, see more, experience more.
子張學干祿。子曰：「多聞闕疑，慎言其餘，則寡尤；多見闕殆，慎行其餘，則寡悔。言寡尤，行寡悔，祿在其中矣。」论语 — 为证：15
There are some Taoist tenants as well. Laozi teaches that the value of a vase is not the vase itself but the space within it.
三十輻，共一轂，當其無，有車之用。埏埴以為器，當其無，有器之用。鑿戶牖以為室，當其無，有室之用。故有之以為利，無之以為用 — 道德经：11
Wisdom is defined as knowledge that goes through some internalization and this idea propagates throughout time and space.
Michel du Montaigne in his Essays:Book One 25 Of Pendantry writes:
We take the opinions and the knowledge of others into our keeping, and that is all. We must make them our own. We are just like a man, who, needing fire, should go and fetch some at his neighbor’s house, and, having found a fine big fire there, should stop there and warm himself, forgetting to carry any back home. What good does it do us to have our belly full of meat if it is not digested, if it is not transformed into us, if it does not make us bigger and stronger? Do we think that Lucullus, whom books, without experience, made and fashioned into such a great captain, used them in our manner?
The other aspect of 沉默是金 is the emperor thinking of how to solve the puzzle. The emperor kept an open mind and listened to the old minister despite the master craftsman not being able to solve the puzzle. People have two ears, one mouth for a reason. I found a very fascinating practice for Amazon product management where a Product Manager spends time contemplating a particular product initiative, think of every possible question that can come up in response to the initiative and distills this into a 6 page paper. The Product Manager then calls a meeting for all stakeholders where the stakeholders spend the first 30 minutes in complete silence reading the 6 page paper and the rest of the time debating and deciding whether to go through with the initiative. This is quite the departure from typical practice where a meeting is called and a very small group of people of dominant and vocal participants monopolizes the meeting time leaving others voiceless.
If we could spend more time on processing and producing rather than on consuming. If we could connect all these bite size pieces of experience and compose wisdom from it. If we could spend time trying to develop our thoughts instead of passing along our half baked thoughts to others expecting the others to bake the other half. If we could sit in silence, listening to what others say instead of listening to our own mind figuring out, working on, only focusing on our own response. If we could source knowledge and inspiration from any person, any place, any experience. It will be golden.