crossed the river by feeling the stones too. 摸着石头过河Cross the river by feeling the stones.


Mōzhe shítou guòhé.

— 摸 mō, touch
— 石头 shítou, stone
— 过 guò, cross
— 河 hé, river

The new popular expression “Cross a river by feeling the stones” originally refers to the pragmatic policy of Deng Xiaoping, to move ahead with economic reforms slowly and pragmatically. You can learn to use such new expression in your daily Chinese  conversation. If you want to express your experience for the first-time trial, you can say like that –

Well, I didn’t know whether we would succeed or not when I was first trying. I just crossed the river by feeling the stones too ( 我也是摸着石头过河 Wǒ yěshì mōzhe shítou guòhé) .

Confucian society defines success on a singular pattern. The route to success is under a “no pain, no gain” belief, like working out, like going to the gym, like diet. I’m going to go to pain, but I know I will get muscles and I will lose weight. It is certain - if I suffer, if I command, I can win. Capitalism, on the other hand, is based on the individual. He shapes his own definition. Success route is based on high risk, high return, just like what you’re learning from efficient capital market. But it is uncertain. It is not certain.

To get rich is glorious, that is the ideal, but how can I get there? DENG Xiaoping said crossing the river by feeling the stones. “摸着石头过河(mōzhe shítou guòhé)。” Not so certain, is it? Crossing the river by feeling the stones - it’s a trying period, it’s risk-taking, it’s a maze. ChineseHour has the story in detail.

The Chinese leadership remains fairly conservative in their “liberalization” or “reform” efforts. “Crossing the river by feeling the stones” became China’s mode of economic reform, it means implementing partial reforms in an experimental manner, often in a few regions, and expanding them upon proven success.

There were several reasons for this approach. First, gradualism was a means to circumvent political resistance against reforms. Second, gradual, experimental reform was a pragmatic approach in a heavily distorted environment in which ‘first best’ solutions were unlikely to apply. Experimental reforms, confined to specific regions or sectors, allowed the authorities to gather information on effects that could not be analysed in advance. They were also necessary to develop and test the administrative procedures and complementary policies needed to implement the reforms. With proven success the experiment could be expanded to other regions and sectors. Third, experimental reform may have suited the Chinese culture well as a means to avoid ‘loss of face’: if an experiment did not work, it could be abandoned as an experiment, rather than considered a policy failure.

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