Rome Was Not Built With a Single Drop

by Ben Schutz 21. October 2011 18:42

The Chinese idiom 水滴石穿 (shui3 di1 shi2 chuan1) literally means constant dripping wears away the stone and comes from 《鹤林玉露》 written by Luo Dajing in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Zhang Guaiya was the magistrate of Chongyang County. He was committed to eliminating the corruption that was widespread among public officials at the time. However, for a long time he was not very successful. Then one day, Zhang was out patrolling when he saw an aide come scurrying out of the local government office. He stopped the aide and asked him why he was in such a hurry. However, the aide hemmed and hawed, which made the magistrate very suspicious. It was at this point that the magistrate noticed a coin tucked behind the aide's ear. After some tough questioning, the aide finally admitted that he had pilfered the coin from the government office.

The magistrate decided to make an example of the aide and took him immediately to court. The aide protested:

Why are you making such a fuss? I have only stolen one coin. Surely, you would not execute me for that.

But the magistrate responded:

Yes, I would. If I let you live and you steal one coin a day, then after a thousand days the money stolen would amount to 1,000 coins. With a single drop of water a day, the stone will eventually wear away.

Then the magistrate whipped out his sword and chopped off the aide's head. The entire court was stunned, but the magistrate explained that he had not executed the official only as a punishment for his ill-gotten gains, but he also wanted to send a warning to other officials that corruption does not pay.

Today, this popular Chinese idiom is used frequently to underscore the idea that it takes a constant effort and patience to do something difficult or important. The English expression which expresses a similar sentiment is - Rome was not built in a day.

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Bamboo on the Mind

by Ben Schutz 23. September 2011 21:40

The Chinese expression 胸有成竹 (xiong1 you3 cheng2 zhu2)literally means have grown an image of bamboo in one's mind. The idiom was first used in the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1126) to praise the exceptional artistry of the bamboo paintings created by Wen Yu-ke (文与可). However, today it is used to describe (in favourable terms) people who prepare a well-thought out plan before they embark upon a particular course of action.

Wen loved bamboo. So much so that he planted groves of bamboo all around his house. During his spare time he would spend wandering in his bamboo garden studying the shape, nuance of colour and detailed lines of the plants. After doing thisyear in, year out he became so accustomed to the details of the plants that they became etched into his mind. These images in his mind's eye were so vivid that Wen could paint pictures that looked like real bamboo even though he painted them in his study without directly observing any plants.

Wen's impressive art works became sowell-known that scholars, government officials and rich merchants came from far and wide to see them. Also, other artists came to visit Wen seeking to gain some insight into his trade secrets. Although they meticulously observed his technique, they could not fathom how he could achieve such perfect representations of bamboo without actually looking at any bamboo plants. So they turned to Wen's close friend, poet Chao Buzhi, for advice. Chao told them:

If you want to paint bamboo like Wen, you must have grown bamboo in your mind before you unfold the paper and pick up the brush.

I am sure there is an equivalent English idiom, yet I cannot think of it. You could say, it ison the tip of my tongue. If you can help, please contact me.

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Blog | China | Idioms | Learning | Mandarin


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