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

A Precarious Pile of Eggs

by Ben Schutz 17. November 2011 22:25

The Chinese idiom 危如累卵 (wei1 ru2 lei3 luan3) literally means as precarious as a pile of eggs and comes from a story about King Liu Pi, ruler of the State of Wu.

After his son was killed during a quarrel with a prince of the Han imperial court, King Liu grew to hate the Han regime with a passion. He started by pretending that he was under the weather in order to miss the regular sessions of the imperial court. But, ultimately this did not help. So, he began plotting a rebellion against the Han regime.

King Liu Pi's aid, Mei Cheng, heard about the plot and warned the king that he could not succeed in a battle against the Han regime and that he was likely to be taken to the cleaners. Mei advised the king that to continue plotting against such a formidable foe would leave the king in a situation as precarious as a pile of eggs.

Mei's prediction was correct. When the Han emperor was told that some states, including King Liu Pi's State of Wu, were expanding their military he introduced measures to tighten the control of his central government. And when Liu's plot of rebellion finally came to light, the emperor sent in a large army to crush the revolt. In just three months, all the rebel troops from the State of Wu were wiped out and King Liu Pi was killed.

The popular Chinese idiom 危如累卵 (wei1 ru2 lei3 luan3) is today used to describe situations where a person has placed themselves (or has been placed by circumstances) in a situation where there is an imminent danger of something bad happening. English speakers might describe a person in such as situation as being on a slippery slope.

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Blog | English | Mandarin


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