Get an Inch and Take a Mile

by Ben Schutz 15. February 2012 00:02

The Chinese idiom 得陇望蜀 (de2 long3 wang4 shu3) literally means covet Sichuan after capturing Gansu. Sichuan and Gansu are two neighbouring provinces in China. The idiom comes from a story about a war decree issued by Emperor Guangwu during the early years of the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220).

Emperor Guangwu personally led a large army to attach eastern Gansu (then called Longxi) which was under the control of opposition forces. The royal army surrounded two strategic towns, but failed to capture them because they were reinforced with troops from Sichuan. After several months of stand-off, the emperor became impatient and decided to return to the capital, leaving his general in charge. Before departing, Emperor Guangwu issued a war decree calling on the royal troops to invade Sichuan after siezing the two towns. The emperor said in the decree:

A man's desire is very hard to satisfy. Hence, after capturing Gansu it is logical that one would wish to take Sichuan.

The two strategic towns proved to be hard nuts to crack. The battle over the two towns ebbed and flowed for the next four years. Then opposition forces then surrendered. The emperor's general siezed the opportunity to capture the two troublesome towns and then he proceeded to conquer Sichuan.

Today, the Chinese idiom 得陇望蜀 (de2 long3 wang4 shu3) has derogatory connotations and is often used to describe people who are greedy and have insatiable ambitions. English speakers might describe these people as getting an inch and then taking a mile.

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All's Fair in Love and War

by Ben Schutz 31. January 2012 21:13

The Chinese idiom 兵不厌诈 (bing1 bu4 yan4 zha4) literally means in war no soldier objects or nothing is too deceitful. It is one of many popular Chinese idioms relating to war and combat.

The idiom was first used by a general, Yu Xu, who lived during the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220). Under the rule of Emperor An, the Qiang people in the northwestern border areas organized a revolt and started to invade the inland provinces. General Yu Xu was ordered to crush the rebellion.

The rebels heard on the grapevine that General Yu was heading toward them with 3,000 soldiers. Since the rebel army numbered in excess of 10,000 soldiers, the rebels decided to prepare an ambush to nip this problem in the bud. However, while marching to meet the rebels, General Yu's agents uncovered the planned ambush. Before they reached the valley where the ambush was planned, General Yu ordered his troops to halt and asked a number of local people to help spread the word that he was requesting reinforcements.

The rebels were fooled by this deception and withdrew from the positions. General Yu and his troops quickly passed throught the valley and into the heartland of Gansu. As General Yu continued to march toward the rebel stronghold he continued to do things (such as leaving behind more field stoves with each passing night) designed to give the impression that his army was continually being reinforced with new troops.

Since the rebels outnumbered General Yu's army 3 to 1, General Yu initially tried to avoid a direct confrontation with the rebels. He bided his time until he found a favourable location for a decisive battle. He then ordered his soldiers to first use their weak bows to entice the rebels to move closer. When they did, General Yu's men switched to their strong bows and cut a swathe through the enemy.

The fact that General Yu's tactics were so unconventional prompted one of his aides to ask him what principle he used to determine them. The General responded:

In war, nothing is too deceitful

Application of the expression is not limited to military combat. The equivalent English idiomatic expression is: all's fair in love and war.

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Let the Tiger Escape

by Ben Schutz 10. January 2012 19:16

The Chinese idiom 纵虎归山 (zong4 hu3 gui1 shan1) literally means release the tiger to the mountains. The idiom comes from a story about Liu Bei, prior to him becoming a hero during the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280).

During the final years of the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220), China was thrust into a civil war. At the time, Liu Bei was one of the fighting warlords. After a humiliating defeat at the hands of another warload, Liu Bei approached Cao Cao - who later became ruler of the Wei Kingdom - for protection. One of Cao's advisers warned him that Liu was an ambitious man who could become a rival and throw a spanner in the works of Cao's plan for unifying the country. The adviser repeatedly tried to persuade Cao to kill Liu. Cao refused to do so. Instead he took Liu into his confidence and showed him generous hospitality and respect.

One day, Liu offered to lead Cao's army to attack the invading enemy. Cao agreed. This incensed Cao's suspicious adviser. Again, he warned Cao of the dangers.

This is like freeing the dragon to the sea and allowing a tiger to return to the mountains. It could lead to serious problems in the future, so you had better order Liu to return with the troops immediately.

But the horse had already bolted. Liu refused to obey the new order from Cao. He left the territory controlled by Cao's troops and eventually set up his own kingdom. As the adviser had foretold, Liu became one of Cao's chief rivals.

Chinese speakers frequently use this idiom to describe any decision that has potentially disasterous future consequences. English speakers might describe such behaviour as sowing dragon's teeth.

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Casting Pearls Before the Cattle!?

by Ben Schutz 3. May 2011 18:14

The Chinese idiom 對牛彈琴 (dui4 niu2 tan2 qin2) literally means play the lute to the cattle. It alludes to the futility of addressing an audience in a language they cannot understand.

It originates from a story about an accomplished musician of the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220) who played his lute to a group of cattle and found that the cattle kept grazing and did not show any reaction to the music. After making careful observation of the cattle, the musician realised that the problem was not that the the cattle could not hear the music, but rather that they could not understand it. So the musician instead started to play the lute imitating the sounds of mosquitoes, houseflies and other insects. Immediately the cattle stopped grazing and listened intently.

The moral of the story is that one must direct one's message to the correct audience. It is pointless reading Hamlet to a group of kindergarten children and it is pointless discussing the intracacies of Eastern philosophy with someone who is a brick short of a load.

The English idiom cast pearls before the swine expresses a similar sentiment about tailoring one's message to different audiences. This expression comes from the King James Bible - Matthew 7/6:

Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.

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