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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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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The Cicada, Mantis, Oriole and Young Prince

by Ben Schutz 20. December 2011 20:42

螳螂捕蝉 (tang2 lang2 bu3 chan2) is a famous Chinese idiom. It comes from a story about a cicada, a praying mantis, an oriole and a young prince. It dates back to the late Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC).

After defeating the State of Yue, the king of the State of Wu became arrogant about his victory. He indulged himself and was unaware that the king of the State of Yue was imposing many hardships on his people in order to rebuild his army and extract revenge for his humiliating defeat. When one of the officials of the State of Wu warned his king, the king turned a deaf ear to the advice. The official persisted with his warning. But the king became fed up with his official and ordered the official to commit suicide.

Meanwhile, the people of the State of Yue continued to ready themselves for an assault on the State of Wu. Crown Prince You of the State of Wu became increasingly concerned with this turn of events. He devised a ploy to convince his king that he must prepare for the impending attack. One day the Crown Prince, with a slingshot in his hand and looking like a drowned rat, went to see the king. When the king asked what had happened, the Crown Prince told  the following story:

When I went into the garden this morning, I saw a cicada chirping in a tree. It was blissfully unaware of the praying mantis that was sneaking up from behind. As the mantis was about to strike, it had failed to notice the oriole lurking nearby waiting for a quick meal. I thought the bird had not noticed that I was standing under the tree with a slingshot in my hand. However, as I stepped backward to get a better shot at the oriole, I fell into the pond behind me which I had failed to see.

The king burst into laughter and said:

You are very stupid. You cared too much about the gains ahead without being aware of the danger behind.

The Crown Prince agreed, but also added that others could learn from his experience too. He explained to the king how the State of Wu had become complacent after its victory over the State of Yue and, as a result, the State of Wu was completely unprepared should the State of Yue decide to retaliate. The king became angry and reminded the Crown Prince of what had happened to others that persisted with such an argument.

Needless to say, a few years later the State of Yue mounted an offensive against the State of Wu. The State of Wu was caught napping. The whole kingdom was seized and the king was killed.

This story offers a salutary reminder that one who is eager to enjoy the gains ahead should always be mindful of the possibility of unseen dangers lurking nearby. I have not been able to think of an equivalent English idiom. But, it does seem similar to the idea that if something is too good to be true, it probably isn't.

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The Flying Fish

by Ben Schutz 29. July 2011 18:57

The Chinese idiom 鹏程万里 (peng2 cheng2 wan4 li3) literally means the long journey of the magical fish-bird. This Chinese idiom comes from the Chinese classic 《庄子》.

Once upon a time in the northern sea there lived a gigantic fish called Kun (鲲 kun1). Kun had massive fins that allowed it to swim vast distances through water. Furthermore, Kun could change itself into an enormous bird called Peng (鹏 peng2). This bird was said to have such a huge wing span that when it spread its wings, it looked like clouds in the sky. With such big wings, Peng could fly over long distances without stopping. It could, for example, fly from the northern sea to the southern sea on the other side of the globe with a single flap of its wings. In fact, it could soar so high that it could reach the heavens. Given its capabilities to travel by sea and air, there was no stopping where this magical creature could go.

The Chinese use this idiom to talk about someone who has great prospects of success and virtually no limit to what they can achieve. In English, we would say that such a personhas a bright future or that thesky is the limit for them. The second English idiom alludes to the fact that the sky has no limit.

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