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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Casting Pearls Before the Cattle!?

by Ben Schutz 3. May 2011 18:14

The Chinese idiom 對牛彈琴 (dui4 niu2 tan2 qin2) literally means play the lute to the cattle. It alludes to the futility of addressing an audience in a language they cannot understand.

It originates from a story about an accomplished musician of the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220) who played his lute to a group of cattle and found that the cattle kept grazing and did not show any reaction to the music. After making careful observation of the cattle, the musician realised that the problem was not that the the cattle could not hear the music, but rather that they could not understand it. So the musician instead started to play the lute imitating the sounds of mosquitoes, houseflies and other insects. Immediately the cattle stopped grazing and listened intently.

The moral of the story is that one must direct one's message to the correct audience. It is pointless reading Hamlet to a group of kindergarten children and it is pointless discussing the intracacies of Eastern philosophy with someone who is a brick short of a load.

The English idiom cast pearls before the swine expresses a similar sentiment about tailoring one's message to different audiences. This expression comes from the King James Bible - Matthew 7/6:

Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.

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Birds of a Feather

by Ben Schutz 11. March 2011 08:37

Birds of a feather flock together is a popular English proverb used to describe how people with similar tastes tend to seek out each others company. In Chinese there is a similar expression, 物以类聚, which literally means like attracts like.

The Chinese phrase is more than 2,000 years old. The phrase is said to have originated during the Warring States period (475-221 BC). A renown scholar, Chun Yukun, was asked by King Xuan of the State of Qi to bring other talented people like Chun to the King's court. For Chun, fulfilling this request was literally a walk in the park. As a respected scholar himself, Chun spent alot of his time mixing with other respected scholars, so he knew exactly where to find them - as he said to the King:

Birds of the same type often fly together and animals of the same type are often seen walking in groups.

This tendency of people to gravitate toward those who are similar still rings true today and, arguably, is a big reason why large communities naturally divide into groups.

Some argue that the Chinese idiom, 方以类聚, is also an equivalent expression.

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China | English | Idioms | Learning | Mandarin


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