The story of Sai Weng Shi Ma - The Old Man Who Lost His Horse

The story is a Chinese philosophical classic from the Han dynasty, around the second or third century BC.

Many versions of the story exist, and here is the composite version that I have adapted/adopted.

Long ago, an old man lived with his son, at the border of the state, and he made a living by raising horses.

One day, one of his horses bolted away and ran into the hostile neighboring state. Hearing of this, all his friends felt sorry for his loss and came to comfort him. But to their their surprise, the old man was unconcerned. He said to them, "Is it so bad?"

A couple of months later, the missing horse returned home safely, and brought back with it a fine horse from the neighboring state. His friends congratulated him on his good fortune. He said to them, "Is it so good?"

The old man's son was young and strong. The son liked the new horse and rode the new horse every day. One day the new horse got spooked by a wild animal and threw the son from its back. He broke his leg and was permanently crippled. The old man's friends and neighbors came again to comfort the old man, but he was unconcerned. He said "Is it so bad?"

Although his friends and neighbors were used to his unexpected comments, they could not see any good that might be brought by his son's disability.

A year later, when the neighboring state sent troops across the border, all the young and strong men were drafted to fight the invaders, and most of them died in the battlefield. The old man's son was not drafted because he was crippled.

The old man's friends again came to him, and congratulated him on his good fortune; that his son had not been required to go to war and die, like their sons. He said to them "Is it so good?".


This story reflects the line from Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, about nothing being good or bad.

"there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
- Hamlet, in the play Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2, 256-259

" When asked to explain this line, William Shakespeare said, "A man cheerfully observed a religious fast seven days a week. His neighbour starved to death on the same diet." "

It is also analogous to the line in Plato's dialogue"Phaedrus", where Socrates asks Phaedrus,
"And, what is good, and, what is not good? Do we need another to tell us?"

It also is analogous to the proverb of Cicero; "Damnant quod non-intelligunt" - "They condemn (judge) what they do not understand".

Who is to know what is good, and, what is not good?

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This web page was last updated on 21 June, 2011