Definition D for 虛 lists "vainly". Unquestionably, "vainly" is the opposite of "modesty".

And "modesty" implies that you possess something valuable, like knowledge or wealth, but you keep it to yourself. A modest person isn't "empty" or "vain"! I don't understand how 虛 fits 謙虛.

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Above is Oxford Chinese Dictionary (2010) p 577. Below is op. cit. p 845.

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3 Answers 3


虛 = empty, the opposite of 虛(empty) is 實 (solid)

虛 in 謙虛 refers to 虛心 (empty heart = open mind)

A cup full of water cannot take in new water

A mind full of preconceptions cannot take in new ideas

謙虛 = modest, humble, and open-minded (willing to listen and learn)

Also, look at my answer to this question What does 虚怀若谷 mean?


There's some significant problems in this question.

  • "Vainly" as given in the dictionary points to the meaning in vain, not vanity. As given in their example,

    Not a single bullet was fired in vain

  • The purpose of your charge here is unclear:

    A modest person isn't "empty"

    Yes, a modest person simultaneously

    1. isn't full of themselves
    2. doesn't lack knowledge or sincerity

    I'm unsure of the cause of the query here - clearly, a person can be simultaneously empty of boastfulness and not empty of character. Do you consider the word "empty" is being used here in a contradictory manner?


Here is a cultural difference. In English spoken countries, you may confidently define a modest person as having a stronger heart, and this is unarguablely a good character, so you feel 虚 is negative and doesn't fit in the good word. However, the Chinese culture doesn't convey ideas that straightforward. We tend to step back a little bit to show something good. In this case, 虚 implies that, if another person and I both have strong ideas, I should step back a little and try to "make room in my heart" to accept other people's opinions. The "虚" is not literally positive, but here the action of stepping back a little bit is actually what our culture encourages.

If you look at the word "modesty", it literally implies that you properly keep and convey your ideas, not too much or too less. But if you look at the word "谦虚" in which 谦 means if another person and you both want to do the same thing, you just have him do it; 虚 means if another person and you both want to convey ideas, you try to accept the other one's idea first. Do you see the difference? In the Chinese culture, a little "less" or stepping back is encouraged. This is why 虚 in this case is actually a positive character rather than a negative one.

Let me give you another example of "承让", which is a traditional politely expression of "good game" after you win a game or fight. But "承让" literally means, I know you are stronger, but you didn't play on your best, this is your generosity to have me win, I appreciate that. You see that? Even if you win, you tried to give the credits to your opponent sincerely. This is the cultural difference. And "谦虚" is the same idea, the word uses two "stepping back" character to show a positive trait which our culture advocates.

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