Be True to One's Word

by Ben Schutz 5. April 2012 17:59

The Chinese idiom 一諾千金 (yi1 nuo4 qian1 jin1) literally means the promise is weightier than one thousand taels of gold. It comes from a story about Ji Bu, a well known chief officer of the imperial bodyguards in the court of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC - AD 24).

Ji's claim to fame was his mastery or martial arts and his commitment to personal honour and loyalty. As a young man, Ji joined the rebel army fighting against the rule of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). After the collapse of the Qin regime, Ji survived a number of trumped up charges against him and became the chief officer of the imperial bodyguards.

Ji remained an outspoken critic against corruption and bad policies. One day, he openly advised his friends to distance themselves from Cao Qiusheng, a silver tongued aide in the court. News of this eventually reach Cao, so the aide approached Ji to discuss the matter. Cao said:

I cannot understand what makes me such a loathesome person in your eyes. You are from the Chu area like me. Everyone in that area, including me, holds you in high regard due to your commitment to personal honour and loyalty. We all say that "a promise made by Ji Bu is weighter than one thousand taels of gold."

Cao's flattery changed Ji's attitude toward him. Ji came to respect Cao and later the two became good friends.

The English idioms be true to one's words and one's word is one's bond have a meaning that is equivalent to the Chinese idiom 一諾千金 (yi1 nuo4 qian1 jin1).

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A Spent Force

by Ben Schutz 29. November 2011 20:32

The Chinese expression 强弩之末 literally means a spent arrow from a powerful crossbow.

During the early years of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC - AD 24) the nomadic Huns made regular incursions across the northern border, plundering villages and killing many innocent people. Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Western Han sent thousands of troops to repel the Huns, but this failed. Finally, in 200 BC, Liu personally lead an army to the northern border to attack the enemy. However, the royal army was too weak and the Huns took them to the cleaners. Liu and his army were forced to retreat to the capital with their tail between its legs.

During the next 50 years, the battle with the nomadic Huns continued without respite, bringing great misery to the people and leaving them down in the dumps. It was not until the reign of Emperor Wu that the nation was again sufficiently prosperous and powerful to entertain the possibility of another pre-emptive attack on the Huns.

Emperor Wu's plan to send the entire royal army thousands of miles to the northern border was supported by most of his court officials. However, one outspoken official, Han An'guo, went against the flow. He said:

Today, we are quite strong. But it is widely known that after travelling a long distance, a strong gust of wind will fade into a tiny breath of air that cannot ruffle the feathers of a bird; and a spent arrow, though shot from a powerful crossbow, will not pierce a thin piece of silk. The same is true of armies. After our troops travel thousands of miles to the northern border, they will be exhausted and will be crushed by the Huns.

Emperor Wu paid no heed to Han's advice. Unfortunately for the Western Han Dynasty, the advice turned out to be accurate.

Today Chinese people use the expression 强弩之末 to describe something or someone that has, due to the passage of time or distance, become less powerful. The English call such persons or things a spent force.

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