The sky is falling

by Ben Schutz 22. October 2012 00:25

The Chinese idiom 杞人忧天 (qi3 ren2 you1 tian1) literally means the man of Qi who fears that the sky might fall down. It comes from a story (《列子·天瑞》written by Lie Yukou during the Warring States Period) about a man living in the State of Qi during the Zhou Dynasty (more than 3,000 years ago).

This man living in the State of Qi was plagued by the fear that one day the sky might fall down and the earth might collapse. He was so tied up in knots by this fear that he could not eat or sleep. His friends became very concerned about his mental health and one of them eventually decided to have a heart to heart with the man. This friend said:

You do not need to worry about the sky falling. It is just a mass of air and every second of it is moved around by the many people who inhale and exhale it. Furthermore, the earth is a very solid structure, made of huge masses of rock and soil. These rocks and soil extend into every corner. People walk, live and work on these masses every day. It is simply not possible for the earth to collapse.

Thanks to his friends earnest words, the man from Qi came to realise that his fear were completely unfounded. He began to live a normal life again. His wife and family was very grateful for this change in his attitudes.

Today, Chinese speakers use the idiom 杞人忧天 (qi3 ren2 you1 tian1) to describe anyone who entertains unnecessary worries. English speakers have an equivalent idiomatic expression. They would describe unnecessarily anxious people as being liable to get all worked up over nothing.

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A Meteoric Rise

by Ben Schutz 7. March 2012 20:52

The Chinese idiom 青云直上 (qing1 yun2 zhi2 shng4) literally means a direct rise into the blue sky. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the idiom was a special term used to describe someone who had been rapidly promoted to a high official position - a so-called rocket cadre. However, today the idiom has a more general usage and describes anyone who has made rapid progress in their career.

The idiom comes from a story about an official, Fan Ju, in the imperial court of the State of Wei. On one occasion Fan accompanied his patron on a mission to the State of Qi. The ruler of Qi had learned that Fan was an outstanding strategist and had the gift of the gab. Consequently, he sent someone to try to persuade Fan to stay in the State of Qi and work for him. Fan declined the offer.

However, upon returning to the State of Wei, Fan was wrongly suspected of treason and brutally punished. With the help of his friends, Fan fled to the State of Qin. He changed his name and made a fresh start. The Duke of Qin also appreciated Fan's talents and it was not long before the Duke appointed Fan the prime minister of his court.

Several years later, the State of Qin invaded the State of Wei. Fan's previous patron in the State of Wei was sent as a special envoy to negotiate a truce. The envoy was dumbstruck when he saw Fan sitting at the negotiating table as the prime minister of the rival state. When he recovered his composure, he began to apologise profusely for his past behaviour, saying

I did not expect you would have such a direct rise into the blue sky

After giving him a lecture, Fan accepted the apology and allowed the envoy to return to the State of Wei.

English speakers would describe someone who has experienced a rapid advancement in their career like Fan Ju as rising rapidly from the ranks. Originally this idiom (like the Chinese one) had a more narrow interpretation. It was used to describe a person in the armed forces who was rapidly promoted from the rank of private to become an officer - this was a rare feat indeed.

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A Crowded Courtyard

by Ben Schutz 29. February 2012 23:11

The Chinese idiom 门庭若市 (men2 ting2 ruo4 shi4) literally means the entrance and the courtyard are crowded with people like a market bazaar. It comes from 《战国策》 composed by Liu Xiang in the Western Han Dynasty.

The story is about the self conscious Prime Minister Zou Ji in the court of the State of Qi during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). The Prime Minister was constantly asking others whether he was as handsome as his good friend Xu Gong, a man who was regarded as good looking. His wife, his concubine and his best friend all told Zou that he was more handsome than Xu Gong. However Zou was not convinced and decided to put Xu Gong's looks under the microscope himself.

He invited Xu Gong to dinner. After looking closely at his friend over dinner, Zou decided that he was not as good looking as Xu Gong. Next morning, Zou related his story to the King Wei of the State of Qi:

Last night I could not sleep. I was completely stumped why my wife, concubine and best friend all lied to me. But, after much puzzling I have come to the conclusion that my wife flatters me, my concubine fears me and my friend wants to ask me a favour.

And then he went further and said directly to King Wei:

From this I realize that Your Highness as king of a large state like Qi must constantly face the problem of being deceived by sweet words, for there is no one who does not flatter you, fear you or seek your favour.

The king agreed. He decided to address the problem by issuing a decree that offered awards to those brave enough to criticize him and his court. In the first few days, the court was as crowded as a marker bazaar. However, as the king began to revise his policies to address the criticism, the crowds thinned out and eventually almost no one came to complain. The State of Qi became stronger with each passing day and neighbouring states sent their envoys to pay tribute.

Originally, this Chinese idiom was used to illustrate the merits of conquest by peaceful means, but today it is more often used to describe a place that is crowded with visitors seeking an audience with someone important (e.g. a public official). Also, the idiom is sometimes used to describe a shop that has alot of customers.

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The First Song is a Success

by Ben Schutz 27. December 2011 19:15

The Chinese idiom 一鸣惊人 (yi1 ming2 jing1 ren2) literally means amaze the world with its first song. The expression comes from a story about King Wei of the State of Qi during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).

King Wei ascended to the throne when he was in his early 20s and as a young ruler he was not very interested in state affairs. Instead he idled away his time - playing during the day and drinking all evening. As a result, the political and economic situation in the state went downhill and several neighbouring states ceased the opportunity to invade its borders.

Some of the more patriotic court officials persuaded Chunyu Kun, a silver tongued politician, to warn the young ruler that the State of Qi was tottering on the brink. Chunyu knew the king liked stories, so one day he came to the king and recounted a story. He told the king about a bird that had perched in the same tree for many years, never fluttering its wings or uttering a sound. The king immediately grasped the moral of the story. He said:

I know the bird. Should it desire to fly, it would soar into the sky with a great flourish. Should it desire to sing, it would amaze the world with its first song.

The next morning the king took the bull by the horns. He summoned his 72 magistrates of the state to court. To reassert his authority, he honoured one magistrate for his first rate performance and executed another for his abject failure in his trusted duties. In the following months, the king personally led the royal armies to repel the invaders. After securing the state's borders, the king began to concentrate on reinvigorating the state's agricultural production. Thanks to the efforts of the king and his court, the State of Qi enjoyed many years of prosperity and power.

Today, the Chinese idiom 一鸣惊人 (yi1 ming2 jing1 ren2) is used to praise anyone who has made a success in his or her career with a single accomplishment. The English refer to this as becoming an overnight success.

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An Old Horse

by Ben Schutz 1. November 2011 04:55

The Chinese idiom 老马识途 (lao3 ma3 shi4 tu4) literally means an old horse knows the way. The story behind this idiom tells how one old horse saved thousands of soldiers from freezing to death.

In 663 BC, Duke Huan of the State of Qi amassed a vast army to invade the Guzhu Kingdom. Due to the complex local geography and the long distances involved, many months passed before the offensive was finally successful. As a result, the Qi troops were forced to withdraw during winter.

The winter wind and snow had completely changed the look of the countryside and this caused the Qi army to lose its bearings and become hopelessly lost. A number of scouts were sent out, but they all failed to find a route home. Eventually, the Duke summoned his advisers and demanded that they come up with a solution. One of the advisers told the others that he had heard that old horses always know the way home. Since everything else had failed, the Duke was willing to give this advice a try. Sure enough, they found an old horse that had been serving in the army for many years. Miraculously, this old horse found a path out and lead the whole Qi army to safety.

Today, this Chinese idiom is used to describe people who are experienced and wise about the ways of the world. These are the type of people you can rely on for good advice in a crisis. The English refer to these people as old hands.

It has been suggested to me that the Chinese idiom 老马识途 (lao3 ma3 shi4 tu4) could also be used to describe someone who know the ropes. However, I think this English idiom has a slightly different meaning and is more suited to describe a person who knows what is required to perform a particular task, but who is not necessarily an expert. So, I think it is more like the Chinese idiom 得其三昧 (de2 qi2 san1 mei4). [If you have a different view, please let me know.]

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