A HSK5 textbook exercise talks about the saying 人贵有自知之明 (which means something like "self-knowledge is precious"). It writes:

……。把自知称之为“明”,可见自知是一个人智慧的体现。而自知之明之所以“贵”,则 [blank] 人是多么不容易自知。
HSK5上 workbook, p.18 (image)

So the 明 reflects ones intelligence, and 贵 indicates how 自知 difficult to obtain.

In this exercise there are four choices for the blank:


The given answer is 说明, but I'm not sure why. The answer is clearly not 叙述 ("narrate") or 抱怨 ("complain") which are not relevant. But I can't figure out why 告诉 is not correct here.

CC-CEDICT: 说明 (shuō​míng​) to explain / to illustrate / to indicate / to show / to prove / explanation / directions / caption / CL: 個|个

CC-CEDICT: 告诉 (gào​su​) to tell / to inform / to let know

I often encounter 这个故事告诉人们 at the end of anecdotes, which is why I chose 告诉 above.

Question: Why is it 说明 and not 告诉 within the above?

  • "and wisdom to know the difference" from Serenity Prayer has the same meaning of "人贵有自知之明", (although it's not related to the question directly). Jul 6, 2021 at 7:04
  • In my opinion the sentence 而自知之明之所以“贵”,则说明人是多么不容易自知 is an error. It would be better to say 而自知之明被人们认为那么重要,则说明人是多么不容易自知.
    – Sherry869
    Jul 6, 2021 at 8:19
  • 「贵」 在文言文中可用作「重視」「重要」的意思. 「人贵自知」即是 「做人要重視自知之明」或 「自知之明對人是很重要的」
    – Tang Ho
    Jul 6, 2021 at 11:39

3 Answers 3


说明 isn't followed by a pronoun but a sentence stating what you are explaining.

For example, 说明人是多么不容易自知 = it explains how people rarely know themselves (you don't need to state whom you are explaining to)

告诉 needs to be followed by a pronoun.

For example, 告诉人們, 人是多么不容易自知 = it tells people that people rarely know themselves (you need to state whom you are telling to)

Since there's no object in the question, 说明人是多么不容易自知 is the correct answer

告诉(object missing)人是多么不容易自知 is ungrammatical.

If the original question wrote: "则 [blank]人們 人是多么不容易自知。" Then "则 [告诉]人們 人是多么不容易自知。" would be the correct answer


而自知之明之所以“贵”,则 [说明] 人是多么不容易自知。

Have a clear understanding of self is deemed a precious personal trait, the sentence "explains" that it is not easy for people to know themself.

In here, 贵 meant 珍贵, which in turn means rare or scarce. The first phrase in the complete sentence was an ancient teaching written in the old language (古文), and the second phrase "explains" the meaning of that teaching using the modern language (白話文).


The usage of 告诉 in Chinese is different from "tell" in English. "Tell" and "explain" are often interchangable in English, but not in Chinese. Their meanings are quite distinct. Although in some cases 告诉 maybe used as 说明.

Another difference is, 告诉 is a bit like a transitive verb, so to speak. So it requires an object, while 说明 doesn't.



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