Translation: The Dao that can be told is not the constant Dao.
Broken down into words
可：to can, to be able to
常：real, genuine, true
This proverb finds its origin in Daoism. In Chinese Daoism, ‘dao’ means something like logic, rationality, life, everything on earth. In that sense, you can also use ‘dao’ to refer to the metaphorical way of life, including everything that you, as a human being, can or cannot control.
Then, the proverb tells us that as humans, we are constantly trying to understand the world around us. We do this through our own observations, everything we see and hear has an impact on how we see the world. Some events are minor, some are major. However, as we are all human beings, we cannot possibly know and understand everything that happens in the world. Therefore, the ancient Chinese tell us that we should be aware of the fact that we only know a tiny part of the entire world.
Which then does not mean that you as humans don’t know anything. Rather the opposite. If you are able to comfortably live life in the context you created for yourself, you are doing what you are supposed to be doing. You do not need to know everything, that would be rather impossible. Everyone lives in their own context. As long as you know your own, consisting out of people around you, where you live, your workplace, etc., you can be a balanced, fair, genuine human being. As long as you are aware of the limitations of your own understandings, you know your own place in the world. If you know your own place in the world and act accordingly, you are a good human being.
As you have read this week, not all Chinese proverbs are all too straightforward. Given that the Chinese have four-thousand years of history, a lot of things have changed since these proverbs first started appearing. Perhaps, we cannot always understand the perceptions of people who lived hundredths of years ago, when these proverbs first came into existence.
However, still today, Chinese people often use proverbs in daily speech. In Chinatown, they are imprinted on the sidewalks, to emphasize and retain Chinese identity. Who would not be proud of a long history of philosophies and wisdom..?