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English Equivalent: Fine feathers make a fine bird.
To understand this proverb, we need to examine the value of silk. In the past, silk was considered a luxury product reserved exclusively for the wealthy. During the Tang Dynasty, the different colors of silk worn by the upper class signified social class. The proverb’s literal meaning then, is that a person’s beauty is due to the fine clothes they wear. The figurative meaning speaks to a broader notion of self-presentation. There are many sayings in Western culture that discuss false assumptions based on presentation; “Never judge a book by its cover” warns you against misconceptions based on appearances while “Fake it ‘til you make it” prompts you to forge self-confidence to mislead others while you gain expertise. This proverb is a variation of the “dress to impress” Western concept. “Lúa tốt vì phân” not only reiterates the first part of the proverb, but together they imply that beauty of any kind (in people or in plants) requires care and cultivation.
On the topic of beauty, Vietnam also has another well-known proverb, “Cái nết đánh chết cái đẹp,” which means “Bad conduct kills beauty.” Regardless of how beautiful you are on the outside, physical beauty cannot conceal a cruel nature. Goodness and inner beauty will make an average looking person appear beautiful, but bad conduct will make even the most stunning person appear unattractive. After all, physical beauty deteriorates, but a good heart prevails.