A Snake in the Wine

by Ben Schutz 17. August 2011 18:31

The Chinese idiom 杯弓蛇影 (bei1 gong1 she2 ying3) literally means mistake the reflection of a bow in the cup for a snake. It comes from a story (written by by Huang Zunxian in the Qing Dynasty) about a county magistrate called Ying Bin (应郴) who lived during the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD).

One summer day, Ying Bin invited a government official called Du Xuan (杜宣) to come to his house to drink wine. On the north wall of the room where they sat hung a red bow. Due to the particular time of the day, the light coming through the window caused a reflection of this bow to appear in the middle of Du Xuan's wine goblet. Du Xuan mistook the reflection for a squirming snake. Although Du Xuan wasscared stiff, he dared not turn down the hospitality of his superior. So, he closed his eyes and drank the wine believing that he was also swallowing a snake. When Du Xuan returned home later that day, he was experiencing chest and stomach pain. The pain was so severe that he could hardly eat and drink any more. He sent for the doctor, but nothing the doctor tried could reduce the pain.

A couple of days later, Ying Bin visited Du Xuan and asked him what had caused him to become so ill. Du told him about the snake in the wine. Ying thought this was odd, yet he was unable to think of any other explanation. Ying stayed with Du for a while, then bid him farewell and headed for home. As he came through his front door, some light reflected off the red bow on the north wall caught his eye. Suddenly, he realised what had happened to Du Xuan.

Ying immediately sent his man to fetch Du. He seated him where he sat before and offered him another cup of wine. Again, Du saw the snake-like shadow. But Ying was able to quell Du's fears by pointing out to him that the "snake" in the cup was nothing more than a reflection of the bow on the north wall. Immediately following this revelation, Du's illness miraculously disappeared!

Today, Chinese people use the idiom杯弓蛇影 (bei1 gong1 she2 ying3) to describe someone who is being overly suspicious or paranoid about something. I have not been able to think of an equivalent English idiom. If you think you might have one, please contact me.

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Every Lost Horse Has A Silver Lining

by Ben Schutz 12. July 2011 01:08

The Chinese idiom 塞翁失马 (sai4 weng1 shi1 ma3) literally means the old man on the frontier has lost his horse and comes from 《淮南子》 written by Liu An in the Western Han Dynasty.

Once upon a time, there was an old man called Sai Weng who lived on the northern frontier of China. One day, his horse inexplicably disappeared. His neighbors and friends came to comfort him, but Sai Weng was not upset at all. He said

I have only lost a horse, and this is not a big loss. Maybe something good will come of it in future.

Sure enough, he was right. A few days later, his horse returned and it was accompanied by another horse that was even better. His neighbors came to congratulate him on his good fortune. But once again, Sai Weng had a different point of view. He said his good luck might turn out to be misfortune in the end. Strangely, he was right again. A few days later, his son fell from the new horse and broke his leg. But even this unfortunate event had a positive side too. Since his son was lame after that accident, he was not conscripted as a soldier to fight in the war and consequently lived safely with his family out of harms way.

Today, Chinese people use the idiom 塞翁失马 to comfort those who have suffered some misfortune. Effectively, they are saying

Don't worry, even the most unhappy situation may result in something good.

The English idiom (actually, an English proverb) that has a very similar meaning is every cloud has a silver lining. This English expression was originally used by William Shakespeare in one of his plays in a slightly different form

For every cloud engenders not a storm.

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