An Old Horse

by Ben Schutz 1. November 2011 04:55

The Chinese idiom 老马识途 (lao3 ma3 shi4 tu4) literally means an old horse knows the way. The story behind this idiom tells how one old horse saved thousands of soldiers from freezing to death.

In 663 BC, Duke Huan of the State of Qi amassed a vast army to invade the Guzhu Kingdom. Due to the complex local geography and the long distances involved, many months passed before the offensive was finally successful. As a result, the Qi troops were forced to withdraw during winter.

The winter wind and snow had completely changed the look of the countryside and this caused the Qi army to lose its bearings and become hopelessly lost. A number of scouts were sent out, but they all failed to find a route home. Eventually, the Duke summoned his advisers and demanded that they come up with a solution. One of the advisers told the others that he had heard that old horses always know the way home. Since everything else had failed, the Duke was willing to give this advice a try. Sure enough, they found an old horse that had been serving in the army for many years. Miraculously, this old horse found a path out and lead the whole Qi army to safety.

Today, this Chinese idiom is used to describe people who are experienced and wise about the ways of the world. These are the type of people you can rely on for good advice in a crisis. The English refer to these people as old hands.

It has been suggested to me that the Chinese idiom 老马识途 (lao3 ma3 shi4 tu4) could also be used to describe someone who know the ropes. However, I think this English idiom has a slightly different meaning and is more suited to describe a person who knows what is required to perform a particular task, but who is not necessarily an expert. So, I think it is more like the Chinese idiom 得其三昧 (de2 qi2 san1 mei4). [If you have a different view, please let me know.]

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A Winged Steed

by Ben Schutz 16. September 2011 18:22

The Chinese idiom 按图索骥 literally means looking for a steed according to a picture. It comes from a story about a well-known horse expert, Bo Le (伯乐), and his son.

Bo Le lived during the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC). He was an expert at judging the quality of horses and it was said that he could spot a "winged steed" (an outstanding animal that could run all day) from a thousand galloping horses. Bo Le was widely respected by his peers and also the duke of the State of Qin where he lived. So great was this respect, that his name was (and still is today) frequently used to praise persons who have a good eye for recognising anyone who has an unusual talent in a specific field (e.g. a young singer or scientist).

Bo Le had a son. Unlike his father, the son had no outstanding qualities and knew nothing about horses. In fact, most people (including his father) thought he was really stupid and a good-for-nothing bludger. As a result, the duke of the State of Qin was concerned that when Bo Le died his know-how would be lost to the people forever. He persuaded Bo Le to write a book documenting his knowledge of horse-breeding. Bo Le toiled for many months on his book. The book (titled Xiang Ma Jing 《相马经》) describes in detail how to recognize which horses could be tamed into winged steeds. In particular, he wrote that a good steed has a wide forehead, bulging eyes and round hoofs. The book also contained a picture depicting the strong brow and deep set eyes of such a steed.

Even though Bo Le's son was stupid and lazy, he still had a desire to do something worthwhile with his life. He wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and become a master horse breeder himself. He read a few chapters of his father's book, but upon discovering the picture depicting the strong brow and deep-set eyes characteristic of the famed winged steed he decided not to read further. Instead, he copied the picture from the book and decided to go out and capture a winged steed. He figured that doing this would prove to his father that he was not stupid and worhtless after all.

After wandering around for a whole day, he failed to find a single horse with a face that matched the picture. However, on the way home he spotted a big toad sitting by the roadside. Upon inspection, he found that the toad had a strong brow and deep-set eyes like the picture. He was thrilled to bits by his discovery and raced home to tell his father that he had found a winged steed.

Bo Le did not know whether to laugh or to cry. He said:

My son, I cannot fault your endeavour. However, what you've done is to focus on the form rather than the substance. The so-called winged steed you have found can only hop around, it cannot run and you will never be able to ride it.

From this story we can see why today the idiom is used to describe those who work mechanically try to do something without really understanding what they are trying to achieve. In effect, by focusing too much on the form of the task, they completely miss the point of the whole exercise.

I have not been able to think of a matching English idiom. If you can think of one, please let me know.

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A Rotten Horse Spoils the Herd

by Ben Schutz 8. August 2011 22:36

The Chinese idiom 害群之马 (hai4 qun2 zhi1 ma3) literally means the horse which does harm to the herd. The idiom comes from a story about the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi), the legendary first ruler of China.

About four thousand years ago, Huangdi went to the countryside to visit an old friend with his entourage. On their travels they met a boy keeping watch over a herd of horses. Huangdi stopped to ask the boy for directions to the village where his friend lived. The boy knew the village and provided the Emperor with directions. The Emperor then aksed the boy about a number other things. When the boy was able to help with these things as well, the Emperor formed the view that the boy was actually quite bright (intelligent). So he said,

You seem to be quite knowledgeable. I wonder, do you know how to rule an entire country?

The boy had a simple answer based on his experience herding horses,

Your Highness, there is little difference between ruling a country and watching over a herd of horses. You simply have to drive the wild horses out of the herd.

The Emperor found this refreshingly simple answer quite compelling. He thanked the boy and bid him farewell. The boy's words stuck in the Emperor's mind and he continued to mull over them for many days to come.

The boy's advice has become encapsulated in the Chinese idiom 害群之马 (hai4 qun2 zhi1 ma3). Today, Chinese people use this idiom to describe anyone who has a bad influence on his peers or disrupts the effective functioning of a group.

English speakers would describe this type of person as a bad egg or a rotten apple. The latter expression is actually a shortening of the proverb a rotten apple spoils the barrel. The idea here is that mould or other diseases in one apple will gradually spread to the rest of the apples in the same barrel, thereby ruining the whole barrel.

As a final point, it is worth noting that while the English idiom a black sheep has similar connotations about someone's character, that idiom more aptly applies to family situations. A black sheep is someone who is considered by others to have caused his or her family embarrassment or shame. It is more akin to the Chinese idiom 败家子 (bai4 jia1 zi3).


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Every Lost Horse Has A Silver Lining

by Ben Schutz 12. July 2011 01:08

The Chinese idiom 塞翁失马 (sai4 weng1 shi1 ma3) literally means the old man on the frontier has lost his horse and comes from 《淮南子》 written by Liu An in the Western Han Dynasty.

Once upon a time, there was an old man called Sai Weng who lived on the northern frontier of China. One day, his horse inexplicably disappeared. His neighbors and friends came to comfort him, but Sai Weng was not upset at all. He said

I have only lost a horse, and this is not a big loss. Maybe something good will come of it in future.

Sure enough, he was right. A few days later, his horse returned and it was accompanied by another horse that was even better. His neighbors came to congratulate him on his good fortune. But once again, Sai Weng had a different point of view. He said his good luck might turn out to be misfortune in the end. Strangely, he was right again. A few days later, his son fell from the new horse and broke his leg. But even this unfortunate event had a positive side too. Since his son was lame after that accident, he was not conscripted as a soldier to fight in the war and consequently lived safely with his family out of harms way.

Today, Chinese people use the idiom 塞翁失马 to comfort those who have suffered some misfortune. Effectively, they are saying

Don't worry, even the most unhappy situation may result in something good.

The English idiom (actually, an English proverb) that has a very similar meaning is every cloud has a silver lining. This English expression was originally used by William Shakespeare in one of his plays in a slightly different form

For every cloud engenders not a storm.

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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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