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After pointing out the many bugs in an online Chinese "how to give a presentation in English" webpage, one of my colleagues wrote this on WeChat:

尽信书不如无书
Jìn xìn shū bùrú wú shū

Question: What does 尽信书不如无书 mean?

Breaking this down:

  • (jìn) = "exhausted"
  • (xìn) = "evidence" (maybe (?))
  • (shū) = "book"
  • 不如 (bùrú) = "not as good as"
  • (wú) = "no" (in the sense of "the absence of")
  • 书 (shū), as above.

My closest guess is "a book of misinformation is worse than no book". One of the (Chinese) students said "sort of" when I asked if this was okay.

  • jukuu : to only believe books - you might as well not have any books. bkrs : to believe everything in books is worse than to have no books at all, – user6065 Sep 26 '17 at 13:16
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尽 (jìn) = "completely"

信 (xìn) = "believe in"

书 (shū) = "book"

不如 (bùrú) = "better off"

无 (wú) = "without"

书 (shū) = "book"

"尽信书不如无书" mean "It is better to have no book at all than blindly believe in everything in the books"

Prejudice is worse than ignorance; wrong information is worse than no information

prejudice: preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.

ignorance: lack of knowledge or information

The phrase is not telling you not to read. It is telling you to also think for yourself when you read.

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  • 尽信书不如无书 Jìn xìn shū bùrú wú shū
  • 尽(Jìn)means 完全=all,the whole
  • 信(xìn)means 迷信=believe
  • 书(shū)means 书,这里指尚书。=book
  • So, 尽信书不如无书 means When we read, we should analyze, not blindly believe in the book, not fully believe it, we should see the problem dialectically.
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According to Baidu

泛指读书不要拘泥于书上或迷信书本。

要求读者善于独立思考问题。

The basic idea is that one should not always believe in books and should build up one's own point of view, thoughts or ideology.

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@Tang Ho explains the meaning very well. I'd like to share the story behind this idiom with anyone interested in it.

This idom first appears in the chapter 尽心 of the book 孟子 (Mencius). The original texts are:

孟子曰:“尽信书,则不如无书。吾于《武成》,取二三策而已矣。仁人无敌于天下,以至仁伐至不仁,而何其血之流杵也?”

My rough translation:

Mencius says, "It is better to have no book at all than blindly believe in everything in the books (Thanks to @Tang Ho). For the chapter 武成 (a chapter of 尚书), I only believes in few pages of it. Since a man with benevolence is invincible in the world, when King Wu of Zhou, the benevolent king, was fighting against the cruel King Zhou of Shang, how could it be that there is so much blood (in the battlefield) that even the wooden club is floating (on the blood)?"

Explanations on the context:

The chapter 武成 describes that the battle of Muye (牧野之战) between King Wu of Zhou and King Zhou of Shang is so bloody that even the wooden club is floating. However, in Mencius and other Confucian's opinion, King Wu of Zhou is a man with many virtues (a paragon in Confucian's eye) while King Zhou of Shang is a brutal tyrant. The people is standing on King Wu of Zhou's side and King Zhou of Shang is doomed to be overthrown. It shall be easy for King Wu of Zhou to defeat his opponent, and the battle between the two parties shall not be so bloody.

I accept the viewpoint that we need to think over what we see and read, so I do believe that battle was bloody.

  • You wrote: "so I do believe that battle was bloody." -- did you mean " so I don't believe that battle was bloody."? – Tang Ho Sep 26 '17 at 14:46
  • Mencius concluded-- a just force is likely to defeat a corrupted government's demoralized army without facing much resistance. A strong army need both great commander and high morale to fight efficiently. and demoralized army is more likely to surrender or flee than fight to the death. – Tang Ho Sep 26 '17 at 15:02
  • @TangHo I think Mencius is too idealistic. Good conquers evil indeed, but the process is not that simple. – Huang Sep 26 '17 at 15:18
  • @Huang, the《書》(书) over here was actually a proper noun that refers specifically to the 《尚書》. Our modern interpretation of the phrase turned it into a common noun because ① we have lost touch with the traditional cultural context; ② the specific scholastic opinion of Mencius can indeed be generalized to mean any reading material or historical record. What Mencius meant was actually this: To take historical records literally for all of what they say is worse than having no historical record at all - because we can be misled to believing in things that are simply not true. It pays to be prudent. – Sati Sep 27 '17 at 3:24
  • Incidentally, Mencius' specific opinion turned out to be wrong - the Muye battle was indeed very bloody, as proven by the celebration of bounty and ears harvested from the enemy battalion casualties on the excavated bronze inscriptions. But his general attitude does hold a lot of truth in it, directly addressing our everlasting concern for historical objectivity. – Sati Sep 27 '17 at 3:36
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While 尽信书不如无书 is well translated as "It is better to have no book at all than blindly believe in everything in the books" the more common English idiom is just 'you can't believe everything you read"

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For plain translation, it means 'If you believe everything on the book, you'd better not read the book'. For further translation, it means 'You should trust the book(other people's experience) based on your own experience and exploration, otherwise you'll just be the slave of the book.'

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Better scan nothing ever than believe in whatever in tomes

Might as well read nothing at all as believe whatever printed in books

Believing whatever in books falls far short of reading nothing at all

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