When the Birds are Gone and the Hares are Bagged

by Ben Schutz 24. July 2012 19:23

The Chinese have two idioms that refer to the (reprehensible) practice of people casting aside those who have helped them to achieve their position of power or success - these are 鸟尽弓藏 (niao3 jin2 gong1 cang2) and 兔死狗烹 (tu4 si3 gou3 peng1). The first one literally means to cast aside the bow after the birds are gone, while the second literally means cook the hounds once all the hares are bagged.

During the war between the State of Wu and the State of Yue in eastern China during the Spring and Autumn Period (770 - 476 BC), the King of Yue had two top officials, Fan Li and Wen Zhong. Soon after the State of Wu was conquered, Fan Li vanished into thin air. Initially, the King of Yue suspected that Fan might be trying to draw power to himself so he could rebel against the court. However, the ruler changed his tune when Fan's shoes and clothes were found, together with a note from Fan, on the shores of Taihu Lake. In the note, Fan said that since the ruler of the State of Wu had committed suicide there were only two persons who might cause problems for the King of Yue. In addition, Fan said that he had solved the problem by getting rid of both of them. One of the persons was Xi Shi (the famed beauty who was sent to the State of Wu as a gift) as she might distract the King from state affairs. The other person was Fan himself because he now had too much clout in the court.

The King assumed from the note that Fan had killed Xi Shi and then drowned himself in the lake. However, a few months later Wen Zhong (the King's other top official) received a letter from Fan. The letter warned Wen to quit his post and head for the hills as soon as possible. Fan explained himself as follows:

After the birds are gone, the bows will be cast aside, and after the hares are bagged, the hunting dogs will be cooked. And so too the King is unlikely to share his glory days with his veteran aids.

Although Wen was happy to hear that his former colleague was alive, he paid no heed to Fan's advice. Unfortunately for Wen, not long after Fan's letter, the King started to view Wen as a threat. Wen eventually committed suicide under suspicious circumstances. Legend has it that Fan changed his name and lived happily ever after with the famed beauty Xi Shi.

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Blog | China | Idioms | Learning | Mandarin

The Sharp Shooter

by Ben Schutz 22. March 2012 18:24

The Chinese idiom 百步穿杨 (bai3 bu4 chuan1 yang4) literally means shooting an arrow through a willow leaf one hundred paces away. The expression comes from a story about a legendary archer named Yang Youji who lived in the State of Chu during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC).

Yang started learning martial arts and archery when he was a child. It quickly became clear that Yang was in a class of his own and it was not long before he became the top archer in his home district.

One day, Yang was watching a group of archers competing near his home. They were shooting a target erected beneath a willow tree at a distance of fifty paces. Most of the archers were able to hit this target, so it was difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Then Yang had a brainwave that would enable the best archer to come to the fore. He suggested that the competition organisers paint a willow leaf red and then ask the competitors to shoot at the leaf from a distance of one hundred paces. All the competitors tried and failed. Yang finally asked if he could have a try. Yang took the bow and concentrated on the red leaf quivering gently in the breeze. He slowly released the bow string. The arrow flew through the air with a powerful whoosh and pierced a hole in the leaf.

The crowd applauded and cheered, but one sceptical competitor demanded that Yang repeat the feat. Yang collected one hundred arrows, and the crowd watched in awe as he hit the target one hundred times.

Today the Chinese idiom 百步穿杨 (bai3 bu4 chuan1 yang4) is widely used to describe the unfailing accuracy of an expert marksman - a sharp shooter - regardless of whether he or she uses an arrow, stone, knife, gun or missile. I have not been able to think of an equivalent English idiom.

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