Bring the Dragon to Life

by Ben Schutz 10. September 2012 21:51

The Chinese idiom 画龙点睛 (hua4 long2 dian3 jing1) literally means bring the painted dragon to life by painting in the pupil of its eyes. It comes from a legend about a famous painter, Zhang Sengyao, who served in the court of Emperor Liang Wu.

Legend has it that whenever his sons were away on official duties, the emperor would feel down in the dumps and would ask Zhang to visit him and paint portraits of his sons to cheer him up. The pictures were so vivid that the emperor felt that he was actually seeing his boys in the flesh.

One day Zhang was painting four dragons on the wall of the Anle Temple in Jinling (now the capital of Jiangsu Province). A large crowd gathered to watch him at work. When he finished the work, the crowd showered him with praise. Yet a number of the onlookers were perplexed by the fact that the dragons had eyes, but no pupils. When queried about this, Zhang replied

If I added pupils to the dragons, they might fly off into the wide blue yonder

Many of the onlookers thought the artist was pulling their leg. To convince the crowd, Zhang went ahead and added pupils to the eyes of two of the dragons on the wall. Suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, a thunderstorm rolled in and the two dragons leapt out of the wall and soared off into the dark cloudy sky. The crowd was gobsmacked to find only two dragons left on the wall - the ones without pupils in their eyes.

Today, Chinese speakers use the idiom 画龙点睛 (hua4 long2 dian3 jing1) to refer to adding the final crucial touch to a work of art that brings it to life or putting in the word or two that clinches the argument. I have not been able to think of an English idiom that has the equivalent meaning. If you know one, please let me know.

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Blog | China | Hong Kong | Taiwan | English | Idioms | Learning | Mandarin

Let the Tiger Escape

by Ben Schutz 10. January 2012 19:16

The Chinese idiom 纵虎归山 (zong4 hu3 gui1 shan1) literally means release the tiger to the mountains. The idiom comes from a story about Liu Bei, prior to him becoming a hero during the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280).

During the final years of the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220), China was thrust into a civil war. At the time, Liu Bei was one of the fighting warlords. After a humiliating defeat at the hands of another warload, Liu Bei approached Cao Cao - who later became ruler of the Wei Kingdom - for protection. One of Cao's advisers warned him that Liu was an ambitious man who could become a rival and throw a spanner in the works of Cao's plan for unifying the country. The adviser repeatedly tried to persuade Cao to kill Liu. Cao refused to do so. Instead he took Liu into his confidence and showed him generous hospitality and respect.

One day, Liu offered to lead Cao's army to attack the invading enemy. Cao agreed. This incensed Cao's suspicious adviser. Again, he warned Cao of the dangers.

This is like freeing the dragon to the sea and allowing a tiger to return to the mountains. It could lead to serious problems in the future, so you had better order Liu to return with the troops immediately.

But the horse had already bolted. Liu refused to obey the new order from Cao. He left the territory controlled by Cao's troops and eventually set up his own kingdom. As the adviser had foretold, Liu became one of Cao's chief rivals.

Chinese speakers frequently use this idiom to describe any decision that has potentially disasterous future consequences. English speakers might describe such behaviour as sowing dragon's teeth.

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