The Cicada, Mantis, Oriole and Young Prince

by Ben Schutz 20. December 2011 20:42

螳螂捕蝉 (tang2 lang2 bu3 chan2) is a famous Chinese idiom. It comes from a story about a cicada, a praying mantis, an oriole and a young prince. It dates back to the late Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC).

After defeating the State of Yue, the king of the State of Wu became arrogant about his victory. He indulged himself and was unaware that the king of the State of Yue was imposing many hardships on his people in order to rebuild his army and extract revenge for his humiliating defeat. When one of the officials of the State of Wu warned his king, the king turned a deaf ear to the advice. The official persisted with his warning. But the king became fed up with his official and ordered the official to commit suicide.

Meanwhile, the people of the State of Yue continued to ready themselves for an assault on the State of Wu. Crown Prince You of the State of Wu became increasingly concerned with this turn of events. He devised a ploy to convince his king that he must prepare for the impending attack. One day the Crown Prince, with a slingshot in his hand and looking like a drowned rat, went to see the king. When the king asked what had happened, the Crown Prince told  the following story:

When I went into the garden this morning, I saw a cicada chirping in a tree. It was blissfully unaware of the praying mantis that was sneaking up from behind. As the mantis was about to strike, it had failed to notice the oriole lurking nearby waiting for a quick meal. I thought the bird had not noticed that I was standing under the tree with a slingshot in my hand. However, as I stepped backward to get a better shot at the oriole, I fell into the pond behind me which I had failed to see.

The king burst into laughter and said:

You are very stupid. You cared too much about the gains ahead without being aware of the danger behind.

The Crown Prince agreed, but also added that others could learn from his experience too. He explained to the king how the State of Wu had become complacent after its victory over the State of Yue and, as a result, the State of Wu was completely unprepared should the State of Yue decide to retaliate. The king became angry and reminded the Crown Prince of what had happened to others that persisted with such an argument.

Needless to say, a few years later the State of Yue mounted an offensive against the State of Wu. The State of Wu was caught napping. The whole kingdom was seized and the king was killed.

This story offers a salutary reminder that one who is eager to enjoy the gains ahead should always be mindful of the possibility of unseen dangers lurking nearby. I have not been able to think of an equivalent English idiom. But, it does seem similar to the idea that if something is too good to be true, it probably isn't.

Tags: , , ,

Blog | China | English | Idioms | Learning | Mandarin

Lips and Teeth

by Ben Schutz 13. December 2011 23:35

The Chinese idiom 唇亡齿寒 (chun2 wang2 chi3 han2) literally means if there are no lips the teeth feel cold and comes from a story about a bloody battle during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC).

Duke Jinxian of the State of Jin wanted to annex the neighbouring State of Guo. One of the Duke's advisers suggested that the most likely way to succeed was to launch a surprise attack from the State Yu, also a neighbour of Guo. In fact, the adviser suggested that this approach would kill two birds with one stone because the Jin troops could not only crush the State of Guo, but they could also seize the State of Yu on the way back.

The Duke liked this plan. He sent a special envoy laiden with gifts to the State of Yu to persuade the ruler to allow the Jin troops to pass. However, a sharp-witted official in the Yu immediately smelt a rat and implored the ruler to reject the Duke's request. The official tried to explain that the relationship between the State of Yu and the State of Guo was just like that between lips and teeth. Once the lips are gone, the teeth lose their protection and are exposed to the chill of the air.

The ruler of Yu paid no heed to this advice as he was too obsessed with the Duke's gifts. The sharp-witted official warned his close friends that the ruler's decision to allow the Jin troops to pass was sowing dragon's teeth and that he and his family planned to head for the hills.

And so it came to pass, the Jin troops conquered the State of Guo in just a few days and on their way back home captured the ruler of Yu.

I have not been able to think of an equivalent English idiom for 唇亡齿寒. If you think you know one, please let me know.

Tags: , , ,

Blog | China | English | Idioms | Learning | Mandarin

Stealing a Bell

by Ben Schutz 6. December 2011 22:42

The Chinese idiom 掩耳盗铃 (yan3 er3 dao4 ling2) literally means to plug one's ears while stealing a bell. It comes from a story that dates back to the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC).

The Fan family, who was one of the large clans in the State of Jin, was almost totally wiped out by its rivals during a bitter dispute. They were forced to flee, leaving behind some of their most prized possessions. One day, a man passed by the deserted Fan residence and saw a beautiful bronze bell still hanging above the front door. The man thanked his lucky stars. He decided to steal the bell for himself. However, there was one small problem - the bell was to big and heavy to carry. The would-be thief had a brain wave. He decided to smash the bell into small pieces and carry them home in a large bag.

The thief returned with a big hammer and, with all his might, began striking the bell. Needless to say, although the bell cracked, it made a lot of noise. The thief began to worry that someone might hear him and that he would be caught red handed stealing the bell. But, then the thief had yet another brain wave. He put plugs in his ears and continued smashing the bell. The noise continued, but the thief (who was clearly not the sharpest tool in the shed) figured that if he could not hear the bell's sound, no on else could either.

Fortunately for the thief, the neighbourhood was deserted and no one heard him at work. After many hours of hard work, the bell was broken into small pieces and the thief got away scot-free. [Proving that crime does pay after all - perhaps not the greatest moral!]

Often it is said that the Chinese idiom 掩耳盗铃 (yan3 er3 dao4 ling2) is equivalent to the English idiom bury one's head in the sand. However, I think that it is slightly different. To bury one's head in the sand is to refuse to deal with the reality of something. In some cases, this will involve an element of self-delusion, but not always. For example, I may know perfectly well that something is not right (i.e. I am not deluded), but I choose to ignore it anyway. Consequently, I think the Chinese idiom 逃避现实 (tao2 bi4 shan4 shi2) is a better match for bury one's head in the sand.

Tags: , , ,

Blog | China | English | Idioms | Learning | Mandarin

A Winged Steed

by Ben Schutz 16. September 2011 18:22

The Chinese idiom 按图索骥 literally means looking for a steed according to a picture. It comes from a story about a well-known horse expert, Bo Le (伯乐), and his son.

Bo Le lived during the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC). He was an expert at judging the quality of horses and it was said that he could spot a "winged steed" (an outstanding animal that could run all day) from a thousand galloping horses. Bo Le was widely respected by his peers and also the duke of the State of Qin where he lived. So great was this respect, that his name was (and still is today) frequently used to praise persons who have a good eye for recognising anyone who has an unusual talent in a specific field (e.g. a young singer or scientist).

Bo Le had a son. Unlike his father, the son had no outstanding qualities and knew nothing about horses. In fact, most people (including his father) thought he was really stupid and a good-for-nothing bludger. As a result, the duke of the State of Qin was concerned that when Bo Le died his know-how would be lost to the people forever. He persuaded Bo Le to write a book documenting his knowledge of horse-breeding. Bo Le toiled for many months on his book. The book (titled Xiang Ma Jing 《相马经》) describes in detail how to recognize which horses could be tamed into winged steeds. In particular, he wrote that a good steed has a wide forehead, bulging eyes and round hoofs. The book also contained a picture depicting the strong brow and deep set eyes of such a steed.

Even though Bo Le's son was stupid and lazy, he still had a desire to do something worthwhile with his life. He wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and become a master horse breeder himself. He read a few chapters of his father's book, but upon discovering the picture depicting the strong brow and deep-set eyes characteristic of the famed winged steed he decided not to read further. Instead, he copied the picture from the book and decided to go out and capture a winged steed. He figured that doing this would prove to his father that he was not stupid and worhtless after all.

After wandering around for a whole day, he failed to find a single horse with a face that matched the picture. However, on the way home he spotted a big toad sitting by the roadside. Upon inspection, he found that the toad had a strong brow and deep-set eyes like the picture. He was thrilled to bits by his discovery and raced home to tell his father that he had found a winged steed.

Bo Le did not know whether to laugh or to cry. He said:

My son, I cannot fault your endeavour. However, what you've done is to focus on the form rather than the substance. The so-called winged steed you have found can only hop around, it cannot run and you will never be able to ride it.

From this story we can see why today the idiom is used to describe those who work mechanically try to do something without really understanding what they are trying to achieve. In effect, by focusing too much on the form of the task, they completely miss the point of the whole exercise.

I have not been able to think of a matching English idiom. If you can think of one, please let me know.

Tags: , ,

Blog | China | English | Idioms | Learning | Mandarin


Visiting the Thatched Hut of Zhuge Liang

Read more.. | Comments: 0
21. November 2012 21:19 | Rating: 4 / 2

The sky is falling

Read more.. | Comments: 0
22. October 2012 00:25 | Rating: 3.3 / 3

The Phoney Player

Read more.. | Comments: 0
4. October 2012 20:08 | Rating: 0 / 0

Bring the Dragon to Life

Read more.. | Comments: 0
10. September 2012 21:51 | Rating: 0 / 0

When the Birds are Gone and the Hares are Bagged

Read more.. | Comments: 0
24. July 2012 19:23 | Rating: 0 / 0

Grind an Iron Rod into a Needle

Read more.. | Comments: 0
20. July 2012 00:13 | Rating: 0 / 0

Remove the Root Cause

Read more.. | Comments: 0
6. July 2012 18:49 | Rating: 0 / 0

A Dog's Tale

Read more.. | Comments: 0
6. June 2012 20:08 | Rating: 5 / 1

Learning to Walk

Read more.. | Comments: 0
20. May 2012 22:59 | Rating: 0 / 0

Mastery of the Butcher's Cleaver

Read more.. | Comments: 0
20. April 2012 20:43 | Rating: 5 / 2

Home \ iPhone Applications \ Idioms Dictionary \ Learning Blog \ Why Learn Idioms? \ FAQ \ Sitemap

Copyright Purple Panda 2010 | Terms of Use | Contact Us

PO Box 37, Mt Eliza VIC 3930
Purple Panda Pty Ltd ABN 49 115 506 342