Spilt Water

by Ben Schutz 11. November 2011 17:44

The Chinese idiom 复水难收 (fu4 shui3 nan2 shou1) literally means water on the ground is difficult to gather up. Unlike most other Chinese idioms, this one has three different stories explaining its origin. Of the three, the most widely accepted is about a divorce case involving Jiang Taigong, one of the most famous strategists in Chinese history.

Jiang, who lived in the late 11th century BC, married a woman named Ma when he was a young scholar and as poor as a church mouse. Jiang was a devoted student of history and military tactics and spent most of the time with his head in his books. After several years of marriage, Ma become disillusioned with her bookworm husband and the constant battle of trying to make ends meet. So, she divorced him and left for what she thought would be greener pastures.

A number of years later, Jiang's brilliance as a military strategist was discovered King Wen (of the Western Zhou Dynasty, 11th century-771 BC). Despite Jiang's advanced age (he was in his eighties at this time) he helped King Wen and his successor King Wu unite the kingdom and overthrow the Shang Dynasty (16th century-11th century BC). As a reward, Jiang was appointed prime minister and later Duke of Qi.

After learning of his rapid rise from the ranks, Jiang's ex-wife reappeared on the scene and came to plead for reconciliation. Jiang responded by taking out a basin of water and throwing it to the ground. He said to his wife

Only if you can gather up the split water will I agree to remarry you

Of course, Ma could not gather up the split liquid. She departed and never returned again.

The lesson from this Chinese story is that if one wants to avoid crying over spilt milk, then one must be careful not to make hasty and ill-considered decisions. One might say, you should look before you leap.

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Save for a Rainy Day

by Ben Schutz 14. October 2011 02:40

The Chinese idiom 未雨绸缪 (wei4 yu3 chou2 mou2) literally means thatch your roof before the rain begins and originates from a story about a poem written by the Duke of Zhou for King Cheng of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1100 - 771 BC).

The Duke of Zhou was acting regent for a period while King Cheng was still a child. When the King finally took the throne, false rumours began to spread that the Duke was trying to usurp the throne. The Duke was forced into exile, but he still felt responsible for the King and continued to keep an eye on him.

As a result, the Duke uncovered a plot to by two of the King's uncles to stage a coup against the imperial court. He immediately wrote a poem warning the King of the possible coup and asked a friend to deliver it. The poem used a parable about a bird repairing its nest with tree branches and leaves to prevent it from being destroyed by the wind and rain. However, the King ignored the warning to take precautions because he did not trust the Duke.

Eventually, the King himself became aware of the coup plot and, as a result, realised that the Duke had been framed. He reinstated the Duke to the court and with his help was able to crush the uprising.

Today the idiom 未雨绸缪 is used when persuading people of the wisdom of taking precautions for the future. In English, this piece of wisdom is captured by the idiom save for a rainy day.

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