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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Mastery of the Butcher's Cleaver

by Ben Schutz 20. April 2012 20:43

The Chinese idiom 游刃有余 (you2 ren4 you3 yu2) literally means there is plenty of room for the butcher's cleaver. It is based on a story about a butcher who lived in the State of Wei during the Warring States Period (475- 221 AD).

The butcher was one of a kind when it came to butchering cattle. When the Duke of the State of Wei learned of this butcher, he decided that someone with this type of skill would make a good addition to the royal kitchen. So, one day the Duke invited the butcher to strut his stuff in front of an audience, including the Duke himself.

The butcher began by slaughtering an ox in the traditional manner. This did not impress the audience. However, after hanging and dressing the body of the ox on a large pole, the butcher began to cut the carcass into pieces. He held the carcass steady and then, with a few lightening movements of his cleaver, he cut the carcass into a dozen pieces of almost exactly the same size and shape. The audience was left gobsmacked by the fact that such precise cleaving had taken place in just the twinkling of an eye. There was a long pause and then the crowd burst into applause.

The butcher explained to the Duke that he was able to do his work so quickly because he had spent 3 years carefully studying the structure of the cattle skeleton. These detailed study meant that he now had a map of every joint and every piece of bone engraved into his mind's eye. As a result, the master butcher explained, he was able to find plenty of room in a carcass for maneuvering his clever.

Today, Chinese speakers use the idiom 游刃有余 (you2 ren4 you3 yu2) to describe anyone who can do a job with skill and ease. English speakers would describe such a person as being more than equal to the task.

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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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Give up halfway

by Ben Schutz 6. September 2011 22:25

The Chinese idiom 半途而废 (ban4 tu2 er2 fei4) literally means give up before the job is done.

It comes from about a story about a man called Yue Yangzi (乐羊子) who lived in the State of Yue during the Warring States Period (475-221BC).

One day on his travels, Yue Yangzi happened upon a piece of gold lying in the middle of the road. He picked it up and took it home to give to his wife. His wife was not pleased by this present. In fact, she scolded Yue Yangzi for his lack of morals:

A virtuous man does not drink the thief's water nor does he take food out of the mouths of the poor. Yet, you have picked up another man's lost valuables and then tried to claim them as your own. How can you live with yourself?

Yue Yangzi was extremely ashamed and he set off with his tail between his legs to put the gold back where he had found it. This sorry episode clearly highlighted to Yue Yangzi that he was seriously lacking in knowledge and wisdom. Eventually (with some prodding from his wife), he decided to leave his family and begin a long journey to seek out scholars who could help him become a better man. A year went by and then, out of the blue, Yue Yangzi returned home. Needless to say, his wife was very surprised:

Why have you returned? You have barely spent one year studying with the scholars.

Yue Yangzi somewhat sheepishly replied that he had come back because he was missing his wife and family so much. His wife was not impressed. She took a pair of scissors and went to the loom at which she had been working. Pointing at the half done brocade on the loom, she sententiously proclaimed:

I have spent many hours weaving this brocade strand by strand from the finest silk. Yet, it is nothing until I weave the final strand. If I were to cut the silk now, all my previous hard work would be wasted. And so it is with your studies. You can only acquire great knowledge through hard work and diligence. Can't you see that to stop studying now would be the same as cutting the brocade on the loom?

Yue Yangzi was moved by his wife's words of wisdom. He again left home and resumed his journey seeking enlightenment.

Several years later Yue Yangzi again returned home. However, this time he was a learned man (and his wife rejoiced to see him!)

For some time, I thought that the English idiom throw in the towel had the same meaning as this Chinese idiom. However, I have now changed my tune. The English idiom comes from boxing, where a fighter concedes defeat by throwing the towel used to wipe his face into the ring. It envisages a situation where the fighter cannot win no matter how well he fights - the result is beyond his control as the other fighter is just too good. The Chinese idiom also contemplates a type of failure, but it is due to a lack of self-discipline rather than factors beyond one's control.

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Mend the Fold After a Sheep is Lost

by Ben Schutz 28. June 2011 17:43

The Chinese expression 亡羊补牢 (wang2 yang2 bu3 lao2) literally means mend the fold after finding a missing sheep. It comes from a story about the King of Chu during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).

During this period, the State of Chu was not very powerful and the King and his senior court officials were incompetent and morally corrupt. They indulged themselves and did not attend to the important affairs of state. Zhuang Xin, one of the King's ministers, feared the State of Chu was headed for disaster if the King did not quickly mend his ways. So he tried to persuade the King to change, but the King flew off the handle and accused Zhuang Xin of being disloyal.

Zhuang Xin tried to explain that he was actually trying to do the right thing, but the King would not have a bar of it. Seeing the writing on the wall, Zhuang Xin asked the King for leave to visit the State of Zhao and stay there for a while. The King granted him the leave.

Five months later, the King of Qin sent his troops to invade Chu and occupied a large piece of its territory. The King of Chu was forced into exile. The King realised that he needed some open and honest advice if he was to ever going to get things back on track, so he sent his men to fetch Zhuang Xin. Zhuang Xin gave the King the following advice: It's not too late if you mend the sheepfold when you find a sheep is missing. He then made some good suggestions designed to recover the lost land and give the State of Chu a new lease of life.

The idiom is used by the Chinese to advise people that even if they make a mistake and suffer losses as result, they can still remedy the situation by drawing lessons from the mistake and acting quickly to correct it.

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A Foot or Two Too Far?

by Ben Schutz 4. May 2011 06:00

The Chinese idiom 畫蛇添足 (hua4 she2 tian1 zu2) literally means draw a snake and then add feet to it. It is a popular Chinese expression used to express the notion that over reaching the mark is often as bad as not reaching it at all.

It originates in a story from the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). One day after a ceremony offering sacrifices to his ancestors, a lord in the State of Chu decided to give a goblet of wine to his servants as a reward. However, there was not enough wine to go around (the Chinese might say, 僧多粥少, there is literally more monks than porridge).

One of the servants suggested a contest with the winner taking all. Each servant would draw a snake on the ground and whoever finished first would take the wine as the prize. One of them finished really quickly and decided that he had time to add some feet to his snake and still win the contest. However, before he finished adding feet to his snake, another servant completed their snake and won the contest. The first servant had lost the wine because he had tried to gild the lily by adding something superfluous to a picture that was already complete.

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