The sky is falling

by Ben Schutz 22. October 2012 00:25

The Chinese idiom 杞人忧天 (qi3 ren2 you1 tian1) literally means the man of Qi who fears that the sky might fall down. It comes from a story (《列子·天瑞》written by Lie Yukou during the Warring States Period) about a man living in the State of Qi during the Zhou Dynasty (more than 3,000 years ago).

This man living in the State of Qi was plagued by the fear that one day the sky might fall down and the earth might collapse. He was so tied up in knots by this fear that he could not eat or sleep. His friends became very concerned about his mental health and one of them eventually decided to have a heart to heart with the man. This friend said:

You do not need to worry about the sky falling. It is just a mass of air and every second of it is moved around by the many people who inhale and exhale it. Furthermore, the earth is a very solid structure, made of huge masses of rock and soil. These rocks and soil extend into every corner. People walk, live and work on these masses every day. It is simply not possible for the earth to collapse.

Thanks to his friends earnest words, the man from Qi came to realise that his fear were completely unfounded. He began to live a normal life again. His wife and family was very grateful for this change in his attitudes.

Today, Chinese speakers use the idiom 杞人忧天 (qi3 ren2 you1 tian1) to describe anyone who entertains unnecessary worries. English speakers have an equivalent idiomatic expression. They would describe unnecessarily anxious people as being liable to get all worked up over nothing.

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Blog | China | Hong Kong | Taiwan | English | Idioms | Learning | Mandarin

Bring the Dragon to Life

by Ben Schutz 10. September 2012 21:51

The Chinese idiom 画龙点睛 (hua4 long2 dian3 jing1) literally means bring the painted dragon to life by painting in the pupil of its eyes. It comes from a legend about a famous painter, Zhang Sengyao, who served in the court of Emperor Liang Wu.

Legend has it that whenever his sons were away on official duties, the emperor would feel down in the dumps and would ask Zhang to visit him and paint portraits of his sons to cheer him up. The pictures were so vivid that the emperor felt that he was actually seeing his boys in the flesh.

One day Zhang was painting four dragons on the wall of the Anle Temple in Jinling (now the capital of Jiangsu Province). A large crowd gathered to watch him at work. When he finished the work, the crowd showered him with praise. Yet a number of the onlookers were perplexed by the fact that the dragons had eyes, but no pupils. When queried about this, Zhang replied

If I added pupils to the dragons, they might fly off into the wide blue yonder

Many of the onlookers thought the artist was pulling their leg. To convince the crowd, Zhang went ahead and added pupils to the eyes of two of the dragons on the wall. Suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, a thunderstorm rolled in and the two dragons leapt out of the wall and soared off into the dark cloudy sky. The crowd was gobsmacked to find only two dragons left on the wall - the ones without pupils in their eyes.

Today, Chinese speakers use the idiom 画龙点睛 (hua4 long2 dian3 jing1) to refer to adding the final crucial touch to a work of art that brings it to life or putting in the word or two that clinches the argument. I have not been able to think of an English idiom that has the equivalent meaning. If you know one, please let me know.

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Blog | China | Hong Kong | Taiwan | English | Idioms | Learning | Mandarin

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