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So I'm learning some of Confucius' sayings, and one that I came across was 三人行,必有我师. I tried to translate it but I don't understand...

What does it mean?

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    enter 三人行,必有我师 into jukuu, get 7 translations – user6065 Apr 18 '17 at 22:15
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There are two points that you should know:

  • In Chinese culture, 3 does not often mean a exact quantity. That is, there may be 2,3,4 or many persons around you. There are many other phrases,for example, 狡兔三窟, 三思而后行,三番五次.

  • So this sentence means: We should keep modest to find out merit of the people around you and learn from them. There is a idiom in western culture, Stay hungry, Stay foolish, which has the same meaning.

  • I don't think "2" would work here. The meaning of 三人 is many people (三人為眾). – droooze yesterday
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My ancient Chinese is terrible, but I think I am right about this one.

三: three

人:person

行:walk, go, travel

必:must

有:have, be

我: I, my, my..

師:master, teacher

Literally it would be "(where) three people walk, (there) must be my teacher (among them)."

I assume Confucius meant to emphasise "there is something to learn from almost anybody."

But I also checked the famous translation by LEGGE. There the complete context is given:

“【廿一章】子曰、三人行、必有我師焉、擇其善者而從之、其不善者而改之。”

Excerpt From: Legge, James. “The Chinese Classics — Volume 1: Confucian Analects.” iBooks. This material may be protected by copyright.

And LEGGE translates it as:

“CHAP. XXI. The Master said, 'When I walk along with two others, they may serve me as my teachers. I will select their good qualities and follow them, their bad qualities and avoid them.”

Excerpt From: Legge, James. “The Chinese Classics — Volume 1: Confucian Analects.” iBooks. This material may be protected by copyright.

But see Jesse's answer about the "three"!

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    Literally, 三is three, but here it's just mean "More than yourself" @Jesse provide the best answer. – Kevman Apr 19 '17 at 21:42
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    @Kevman I seek not to outshine that answer in any way, I just find it focused very much on the philosophical meaning. I guess, since this is a language forum, we should also approach it from a language learner's perspective - unqualified as I am to provide it! – Ludi Apr 19 '17 at 21:50
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    Actually you might wrong, Three is a special number in Chinese culture. Firstly 三 means everything in the universe, Chinese call it Sky/Heaven/Everything in the sky(like start, the sun...), Earth(Everything on the earth, the ocean, animal....), People (天,地,人). This extends a new usage, to describe Many. (三令五申,三思而后行,三缄其口) – Kevman Apr 19 '17 at 22:10
  • Great examples. Actually I remember a very similar phenomenon in German. "Ein Paar" means 一對/一雙, but gradually came to mean 幾個。To differentiate the two meanings, we write the second one with a small p. " Ein paar". – Ludi Apr 19 '17 at 22:30
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In English it means, in a group of three people, there will be someone who I can learn from.

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三人行,必有我师 If 3 of us walk together, surely one of the others has something to teach me.

How about: There is always something new to learn.

  • Wrong. 三 doesn't mean three here. – Kevman Apr 19 '17 at 21:41

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