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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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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The Wily Hare

by Ben Schutz 28. June 2011 17:38

The expression 狡兔三窟 (jiao3 tu4 san3 ku1) literally means a wily hare has three burrows.

The origin of the expression dates back about 2,000 years. It comes from a story about a clever protégé, Feng Xuan, to the prime minister of the State of Qi, Meng Chengjun, during the Warring State periods.

One day Meng asked his protégé Feng to collect the debts that Meng was owed by the people of the Xue area. Meng told Feng that instead of bringing back the money he would give him carte blanche to spend the money in a manner that he thought Meng would find useful. After arriving in the Xue area, Feng called all the debtors together and burned all the loan contracts. He told the people that the prime minister had forgiven all their debts due to the poor harvests they had suffered over the last few years. The people of the Xue area were moved to tears by this gesture. When Feng returned to the prime minister and told him what he had done, Meng was not happy but realised that the the horse had already bolted.

About a year later, Meng was dismissed as the prime minister by the King of Qi and needed to go into hiding. His loyal protégé Feng arranged for him to resettle in the Xue area. The people of the Xue area welcomed him with open arms and Meng finally understood the value of what Feng had done for him a year earlier. Nevertheless, Feng said:

A wily hare has three burrows and a crafty man should have more than one hideout. I will build two more burrows for you.

And Feng was true to his word. He managed to persuade the King of Qi to, first, reinstate Meng as prime minister and, second, entrust Meng with the building of an ancestral shrine for the Qi rulers.

To my knowledge, there is no equivalent English idiom or proverb. There are definitely expressions (such as save for a rainy day or don't put all your eggs in one basket) that allude to the need to plan for the future or take precautions against the possibility of trouble, but I feel the meaning of these expressions is slightly different.

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The Tortoise and the Steeds

by Ben Schutz 28. May 2011 21:40

In English there is a well-known fable about a race between a tortoise and a hare. The Chinese version involves a lame turtle and 6 mighty steeds. The story is inspired by the popular Chinese idiom 跛鱉千里 (bo3 bie1 qian1 li3) which literally means the lame turtle goes a thousand miles.

Many years ago there were six steeds living in the mountains of central China. One day they decided to leave the mountains in search of greener pastures. But not long after beginning their journey they encountered a forest and there was no obvious road through. The horses were trying to decide which way to go when they heard a greeting from a crippled turtle coming up behind them. The horses asked the turtle where he was headed. The turtle replied that he was heading for an animal paradise about one to two thousand miles away in the south. The horses told the turtle that they thought he would never get there moving a such a snail's pace. However, the turtle was not perturbed and told the horses that as long as he kept moving forward he would eventually reach his destination.

After the conversation, the turtle continued his long march. The steeds began to argue among themselves about how they could find a short-cut to the paradise. The argument between the horses went on and on. Meanwhile, the turtle kept plodding south and after 3 years eventually reached the legendary paradise. However the turtle could not find the 6 steeds he had met in the woods. He kept his eyes peeled for them, but the steeds never arrived.

The moral of the story is that even those in poor conditions can still achieve their goals with hard work and persistance.

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A Harebrained Scheme

by Ben Schutz 9. May 2011 16:39

The expression 守株待兔 (shou3 zhu1 dai4 tu4) literally means standing by a tree stump waiting for a hare to crash into it.


Long ago in the State of Song, there was a farmer labouring in the fields. One day he saw a hare race past him and crash headlong into a tree stump a few metres away. The hare was knocked unconscious (or we could say, it had brained itself). The farmer picked up the hare and took it home to prepare a tasty dinner. After have a few (alcoholic) drinks, he began to think that the stump in his field might be blessed and that if he could get just one hare a day, he would never have to work the fields again.

So, beginning the next day, the farmer stopped tending his crops and waited by the stump for more hares to come along and brain themselves. Needless to say, this harebrained scheme did not work. He waited several days and no hares came. Meanwhile his field became overgrown and he became the laughing stock of the local area.

The English idiomatic expressions that express a similar sentiment are waiting for something to fall into one's lap and there is no such thing as a free lunch. Both the English and Chinese idioms provide a warning against being lazy, stupid and trusting one's fate to chance. Few people achieve anything (or at least anything of note) in their life without some hard work and perseverance. Despite the obvious truth in this advice, the Song farmer still has a strong army of followers even today. In a world where parents increasingly spoil their children, it behoves us all to remember that raising children without instilling some sort of work ethic does them a huge disservice.

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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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The Year of the Rabbit

by Ben Schutz 18. February 2011 16:09

The Year of the Rabbit is a time for talking and reflecting after the inevitable dramas of the Tiger year that has just gone.

For the Chinese, rabbits have a couple of key traits.

1) Rabbits are associated with luck. If you see a rabbit flash in front of you, get ready for something good to come your way (见兔顾犬).

2) Rabbits are very cautious and keen to avoid confrontations - they will scurry away down their burrow rather than create a scene.

3) Rabbits are sticklers for the detail. They prefer to work behind the scenes and are always planning ahead - whether it be securing an escape route from trouble (狡兔三窟) or scheming about how to make life a little easier for themselves (守株待兔).

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China | Idioms


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