(Ao wa ai yori idete ai yori aoshi;
“Blue comes from indigo and is bluer than indigo.”)
“The student has surpassed the master.” Alternately, hard work and study can lead to greater levels of ability than innate talent. Cloth colored with dye made from the plant “dyer’s knotweed” is a more brilliant blue than the flowers of the plant itself.
We have two nouns here, and both of them are color names: 青 (ao), and 藍 (ai). The first is generally translated as “blue,” although in contrast to English “blue” it refers to a spectrum of what Americans tend to think of as lighter blues and greens – a “green” traffic light is ao, as is the pale green of young plants. The latter is a darker blue, perhaps shading into purples – usually translated as “indigo.” In a concrete sense, ai is both the color of dye derived from “dyer’s knotweed,” and the name of the plant itself.
This saying begins with the noun ao and marks it as the topic of the rest of the sentence with the particle は (wa). Next comes 藍, marked by the particle より (yori). In modern Japanese, this is mainly a comparison word meaning “more than,” but in this case it carries the older directional sense of “from” or “out of.” Similarly, the character that comes next is most familiar to students of modern Japanese as 出る (deru), but in this case takes the older form 出づ (idzu), here in conjunctive form. Our first clause is therefore “ao comes from ai.”
The second clause begins with 藍 and again marks it with より, here in its more familiar comparative form. And finally we get 青し (aoshi), the adjectival form of “blue,” in sentence-final form.
The second clause is also the name of a manga and anime series, a relatively stock risqué-yet-chaste “harem” romance for boys.
This saying is derived from the writings of Xunzi (aka Xun Kuang), a 3rd Century BCE Confucian scholar. The original version adds that ice is colder than the water from which it is made.
(“Ao wa ai yori idete ai yori aoshi to iu ga, omae ga ore no aite ni naru nante, juunen hayai zo.”)
[“They talk about how ‘The student surpasses the teacher,’ but you’ll need about ten more years before you can face me.”]