Remove the Root Cause

by Ben Schutz 6. July 2012 18:49

The Chinese idiom 釜底抽薪 (fu3 di3 chou1 xin1) literally means to stop the soup from boiling, take away the firewood from under the pot. It comes from a story about a dispute between two families that arose when the Northern Wei Dynasty (AD 386-534) split into two states.

Hou Jing was a good friend of Gao Hun, a high ranking official in the court of the Northern Wei Dynasty. After the dynasty split into two states - Eastern Wei and Western Wei - in AD 534, Gao became ruler of Eastern Wei and gave his friend Hou the plumb job of governing Henan Province. Hou respected Gao, but thought that his son (Gao Cheng) was a low-life. So, when Gao Huan finally shuffled off his mortal coil 14 years later and was succeeded by his son, Hou decided to rebel against the court.

Hou first tried to curry favour with the ruler of Western Wei, but this failed as the ruler was suspicious of Hou's motives and suspected that Hou might turn out to be a snake in the grass. When word got back to Gao's son, he decided to get on the front foot and launched an offensive against Henan. In the face of this assault, Hou decided to cut and run. He fled south and finally surrendered himself to the emperor of the Liang Dynasty (AD 502-557) in the south. After hearing about this, Gao Cheng sent the emperor a note requesting Hou's extradition. In the note, he warned the emperor that Hou was a trouble-maker and offered the following advice:

To stop the soup from boiling, you' better take away the firewood from under the pot; and to remove weeds, you'd better destroy their roots.

The emperor did not follow Gao Cheng's advice as he wanted to take advantage of the situation to conquer states in the north. Ultimately, however, the emperor was betrayed by Hou Jing and his plans to reunify China were thwarted.

Today, Chinese speakers use the expression 釜底抽薪 (fu3 di3 chou1 xin1) to describe a strategy that solves a complicated or tricky situation by striking at the root of the trouble.

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