Background and Question

I am again translating Dai Hongci‘s diary from a visit in Vienna during the year 1906 into German. It contains the characters 不之禁也 in relation to indulging the students pastime activities.

Unfortunately, 禁 is one of the most unpleasant Chinese Characters in existence, signifying both „forbid“ and „endure“. So, how should I translate?


The relevant snippet with my tentative English translation reads:

观自习室,为学生课前预备、课后温习之地,人一几一桌。 纵其所好,杂设玩具以娱目,不之禁也。/ Inspection of the self-studying room, this being the place were students prepare before class and repeat the learned topics afterward. Each person is allotted a desk and a chair. Indulgence of their likings and provision of various playthings to please their eye is not (tolerated/forbidden???)

I first opted for „They don’t forbid it“, thinking that the word order favoured this interpretation. But in the Lunyu there are instances, where a long sentence is negated by a following sentence. For example:


Hence, the interpretation „such and such behaviour: they don’t allow it!“ might be correct after all. Several pages later there is also a passage extolling the strictness of the school, which has made me doubt my original interpretation. It goes as follows:



A link to the complete work, pointing to the page under consideration can be visited here.

Clarification Edit

As stated near the beginning, my problem is, which meaning of 禁 to pick and not the structure 不之禁也, which I know from 論語。

  • "A link to the complete work, pointing to the page under consideration can be visited here." The linked page doesn't contain the quoted sentence. It's the next page you should have linked to.
    – joehua
    Sep 15, 2021 at 0:20
  • @joehua No. if I click my link, I arrive at exactly the right page. Unless you mean the last snippet, which is more supplementary.
    – Ludi
    Sep 15, 2021 at 0:27
  • Yes. I meant the last quoted sentence.
    – joehua
    Sep 15, 2021 at 0:35
  • @ludi, i rewrite my answer. your translation of the original text is very good, my salute 👍 Sep 15, 2021 at 12:18
  • do my answer too “jumping”? most of the time, i “feel” strong interference from thinking in literary chinese, while writing in english 😿 Sep 15, 2021 at 12:27

6 Answers 6


As you may have noticed, the two senses of 禁 are pronounced with different tones:

  • 禁 meaning "forbid": jìn
  • 禁 meaning "endure/tolerate": jīn

Actually the English word "tolerate" also has two senses, and I think your confusion might have something to do with that.

The first sense of "tolerate": to allow (something that is bad, unpleasant, etc.) to exist, happen, or be done. This is the opposite of "forbid". Example: Racist or sexist behavior will not be tolerated.

The second sense of "tolerate": to be able to experience hardship or something unpleasant without being harmed. This is the sense that is similar to 禁 (jīn). Example: These plants cannot tolerate drought well. Note that this sentence does not mean drought is not allowed to exist, but rather, drought exists and these plants cannot live through it without being harmed.

This is similar to 禁 (jīn). Examples:

弱不禁风, weak and cannot tolerate wind (Does not mean: wind is allowed (or forbidden) to exist. Means: wind exists and the subject is not able to experience it without being harmed.)

禁得起考验, can stand/pass the test (of hardship) (Does not mean: the test is forbidden. Means: the test exists and the subject is able to stand/pass the test.)

Can you see the difference?

As a rule of thumb, this sense of 禁 (jīn) almost always needs a subject, because the emphasis is on the quality of the subject - whether the subject is able or unable to stand/endure hardship. If there is no subject, it's probably 禁 (jìn), as the authority that is allowing or forbidding things is often implied. (But you can also specify the authority if you want.)

Another way to look at it:

  • 不禁 with 禁 (jìn): clearly means "not forbid"
  • 不禁 with 禁 (jīn): superficially "not tolerate", but more precisely "not have the ability to endure something without being harmed". It says nothing about "allow" or "forbid". So even if 不禁 sometimes means "not tolerate", it never means "forbid".

As for the example in OP, it's clearly 禁 (jìn), as other answers also confirm.

  • The rule of thumb sounds very useful and perhaps deserves being highlited
    – Ludi
    Sep 17, 2021 at 9:03

禁(jìn) means to forbid. 禁(jīn) means to tolerate, to endure.

纵其所好,杂设玩具以娱目,不之禁也. Here, 禁(jìn) means to forbid. Toys are not forbidden.



which meaning of 禁 to pick

well, an interesting uncertainty 😹

the traditional “chinese” education style, private school (私塾), is a repressive environment. children attending such “private school”, they’re supposed to rote classical texts, to read and to write. if they fail to recite any verses taught, absolutely there would be corporal punishment.

so, in such environment, any toys, or, playing, in lieu of learning; is unimaginable.

personally, interpret “禁” as “forbid” is the only, straightforward choice.


not (不) [that|these] (之) forbid (禁), in affirmative mood (也).

so, refer back to the original text, that (之) is referring to “雜設玩具以娛目”

a shortcut would be: “playing toys is allowed” [in the self studying room]


What 之 refers to

之 refers to 縱其所好,雜設玩具以娛目 (indulgence in their interests and placing toys all over to please the eye). You are right in translating 'they don't forbid these'.

Differentiating the two meanings of 禁

Besides pronounced differently, 'to tolerate; to stand' is more inward-facing, compared to 'to forbid'. So it's usually paired with emotive descriptions. For example, in 忍俊不禁 and 弱不禁風, we are interested in the person described and not what they fail to tolerate (laughing / wind). We are not as interested in the school itself here, but what that is forbidden. Perhaps it's better to interpret 禁 as 'to forbid' given the context.

Why 未之有 is not a good comparison

I would think of 不之禁 as, for the lack of a better description, "double negative". It's essentially 許之 (to permit sth); but in 未之有, 有 is rather "affirmative", it's essentially 無之 (to not have sth). 不 and 未 are both negative particles; the difference in the meaning of these two expressions lies in the verb (禁 vs 有).

  • This is an excellent explanation! However my main problem is that 禁 has two clusters of meanings (forbid and endure/tolerate [耐、經得起]. It is this that made me unsure whether to translate „they don’t forbid it“ or „they don’t tolerate it“. The 未之有也 was quoted only as an example of applying a construction of this kind to the sentence in front.
    – Ludi
    Sep 14, 2021 at 23:49
  • 1
    @Ludi I think 'to tolerate' is more inward-facing, compared to 'to forbid'. In 忍俊不禁 and 弱不禁風, we are interested in the person described and not what they fail to tolerate (laughing / wind). We are not as interested in the school itself here, but what that is forbidden. Perhaps it's better to interpret 禁 as 'to forbid' given the context.
    – L Parker
    Sep 15, 2021 at 0:23
  • Excellent. I think you can work this into the answer and when I wake up I (it’s deep night) I can accept it.
    – Ludi
    Sep 15, 2021 at 0:29


What did 戴鸿慈 see?
What "toys to please the eyes" could those be? I imagine Mobiles, 风铃。


The study room is a place where the students can prepare for class, or review lessons, there is a bench and a table for everyone.

Der Studienraum ist ein Ort, an welchem sich Schüler vor und nach dem Unterricht vorbereiten und üben können, Sitzbank und Tisch gibt's für jeden.


To please the eyes, if they wish, students may hang up mobiles, that is allowed.

Gegebenenfalls, zur Freude der Augen, dürfen die Schüler Mobiles aufhängen, ist ja nicht verboten.

(Or: place various decorative toys in the room)
(Oder: dekoratives Spielzeug aufstellen)


I usually use google translator to help me on my free translations. Maybe it was not forbidden, but it had exceptions?

Translation: "No matter what you want, it is not forbidden to set up toys to entertain your eyes."

  • 2
    To use Google translate on literary Chinese (which is distinct from modern mandarin) is to beckon disaster. But thanks for your kind remark.
    – Ludi
    Sep 14, 2021 at 22:04

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