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I recently learned of the idiom "天生我才必有用," which if you translate it directly in google translate, is "everybody is good for something." However, I am curious about the origin of the saying and the context of the phrasing.

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  • I like the approach of thinking in this question. The answers already provide the origin and context that you ask for. But there is something to be said about 天生. Literally, the phrase only means if you are born, it must be for some purpose. Why the invocation of 天 though? I would say in general, the Chinese culture has vague notion of 天 -- being maybe the universe, or law of universe, or some supreme being. It is not an organized religious notion of the God as in Christianity. Therefore, it would be horribly wrong to say it is religious in English.
    – Argyll
    Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 16:37
  • But if not for the English context, I would say it is somewhat religious or superstitious -- other languages/societies may just have a word in between.
    – Argyll
    Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 16:37
  • 1
    When an English speaker exclaims, "Good Heavens"!, is it some religious invocation? Commented Nov 5, 2022 at 2:12

5 Answers 5

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It was from a famous Tang poem by 李白

出处

李白《乐府·将进酒》

:“人生得意须尽欢,莫使金樽空对月。天生我材必有用,千金散尽还复来。”

Translation:

Enjoy the good time fullest when life is good

Don't let the wine bottle quietly sit under the moon

Heaven (nature) created me with this talent must be of some use

wealth will come back even if you spend all that you have

I personally like 千金散尽还复来 more -- Don't be a slave of money

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It's not religious. 天 is used to say that he was born that way, not acquired by later efforts. We can use 天生的 colloquially. For example, 你头发的颜色是染的吗?不,是天生的。Is the color of your hair dyed? No, it's naturally born.

天生我必有用 is a very famous quote from the poem 《将进酒》 by the Tang poet 李白. Here it cannot be written as 才. means 才华, which is only one of the 材 that can be 有用.

The surrounding sentences are

人生得意须尽欢,莫使金樽空对月。 天生我材必有用,千金散尽还复来。

However, the exact wording of 天生我材必有用 is likely not decided by 李白, but by someone from Song Dynasty.

The use of 用材 is 化用典故. In the old times, readers were expected to know 典故 so that the author can express much more contents beyond the literal meaning. By 用材 the readers were expected to understand the story now titled 《材与不材》from 《庄子》(an even earlier related appearance is from 《论语》, not the same story) and also its philosophy.

问其故,曰:“无所可。”庄子曰:“此木以不得终其天年。” ...... 弟子问于庄子曰:“昨日山中之木以不材得终其天年,今主人之雁,以不材死,先生将何处?”庄子笑曰:“周将处乎材与不材之间。材与不材之间,似之而非也,故未免乎累。”

Basically one day the tree was not cut down because 其材无所用, yet the other day the goose was killed because 其材无所用. In the first 无材 leads to its survival, but in the second to its death. Zhuang Zi answered that he would put himself between 材 and 不材.

Going back to the poem, after drinking for a while, Li Bai was confident that he was born to be 材. He didn't care about 有用而死 or 有用而活, it's good as long as he's 有用.

It seems to be a very good version, yet the rhyme is not correct. This is very complicated, and the related concept is 逗韵. In short, it violets the rule of 逗韵. 李白 follows this rule in his other works, e.g.《蜀道难》、《梦游天姥吟留别》. Other Tang poets also does so. For such a great poet as 李白, the obvious violation posed by 用 seems an impossible mistake. This is one of the arguments (not the main one) that scholars use to support their view that the sentence was revised by others. (see more 李白《将进酒》新考, 赵海菱 2012)

Nowadays, scholars generally agree that the version closest to Li Bai's original poem is (from 敦煌写本)

天生吾徒有俊才,千金散盡還複來。

This version writes from the opposite angle. The poet was born with 俊才 yet for nothing (徒). He wanted to put his 俊才 into good use. The general tone is not as 狂 arrogant as the revised version.

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  • in the book 甌北詩話, mr 趙 commented: “蓋才氣豪邁・全以神運・自不屑束縛於格律對偶” 🙀 zh.wikisource.org/wiki/甌北詩話#李青蓮詩 that, using rhyming pattern strictly to analyse mr 李’s poems, is . . . inappropriate, imo 😸 Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 4:47
  • @水巷孑蠻 自不屑束縛於格律對偶 explains the previous sentence 青蓮集中古詩多,律詩少. In 古诗, 格律對偶 is relaxed but not non-existent. The author of the referenced paper gives examples of the 乐府歌行体 completed by 李白. In those the said rule is indeed followed. I think he 不屑束縛於格律對偶 so he didn't write many 绝句律诗, but in his 古诗, he didn't throw their rhymes away. He had a personal style in using them and 用 didn't fit the style. Yet I agree it's not conclusive. Luckily we have the 敦煌写本 which recorded older versions.
    – lilysirius
    Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 4:58
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It was taken out from the poetry of "Li Bai (李白)", a famous poet in the Tang Dynasty. The close meaning is "The heaven/god gave me the ability/talent certainly have uses of it (means the ability/talent)", or "Everbody ought to have his usefulness after being born with a god given ability/talent". Note that, in the ancient past, the Chinese do not have religion but mythology, in which, 天 means the creator of the universe, a god, or simply the heaven (by inference). However, this poetry is a philosophical but religious expression though.

Below is the full text of the poetry.

将进酒 李白 〔唐代〕

君不见黄河之水天上来,奔流到海不复回。 君不见高堂明镜悲白发,朝如青丝暮成雪。 人生得意须尽欢,莫使金樽空对月。 天生我材必有用,千金散尽还复来。 烹羊宰牛且为乐,会须一饮三百杯。 岑夫子,丹丘生,将进酒,杯莫停。 与君歌一曲,请君为我倾耳听。(倾耳听 一作:侧耳听) 钟鼓馔玉不足贵,但愿长醉不愿醒。(不足贵 一作:何足贵;不愿醒 一作:不复醒) 古来圣贤皆寂寞,惟有饮者留其名。(古来 一作:自古;惟 通:唯) 陈王昔时宴平乐,斗酒十千恣欢谑。 主人何为言少钱,径须沽取对君酌。 五花马、千金裘,呼儿将出换美酒,与尔同销万古愁。

http://www.exam58.com/lbds/117.html

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    I wanted to add on that while the original text has some religious/mythological meaning etc. the phrase 天生 itself can be used to convey something "natural born" by modern standards, with no religious connotation.
    – zagrycha
    Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 4:07
  • Yeah, the "Nurture / Nature" connotation. Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 5:37
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An interesting question. Let's ask a aquestion first:
Do you think talents are relating to religion?

I believe yes. And I think the author 李白 believes, too. You can find his poems contain a lot of elements relating to Taoism and Buddhism.

Traditional religion in China contains multiple gods and goddesses. Normally, when we want to say something about gods, we won't say a specific god name. We will use 天(sky) to refer to gods.

For example, we seldom say thank earth god for blessing me good luck. Most of time, we would say thank 天 for blessing me. It's like we know someone on the sky bless me.

The sentence is from the poem 將進酒 whose author is 李白.

Poem name, 將進酒, means let's drink.

The whole sentence is: "天生我材必有用,千金散盡還復來"
Direct meaning is: we are born to have talents. The money we spent will finally come back.

Combining the poem name and the sentence, 天生我才必有用 means:
We are born to have talents. So don't worry. Just drink!

Let's come back to your question.
Do you think talents is relating to religion or not?

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essentially the universe do not create 'useless' thing, no matter how trivial or meaningless from the eyes of human. If anything isn't significant, the universe will not allow it to be created in the first place. Therefore, 天生我才必有用 means " stop arguing that my existence is significance or not. If I existed, there must be a significant reason. Whether or not I or mankind can tell the significance is another story."

The next sentence echo the similar idea: 千金散盡還復來. 'All the money gone will return'. The perspective is a macroscopic one.

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