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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Teaching Lu Ban How to Suck Eggs

by Ben Schutz 23. May 2011 00:51

The Chinese idiom 班門弄斧 (ban1 men2 nong4 fu3) literally means the ordinary craftsman is showing off his skills with the axe in front of Lu Ban, the master carpenter.

The origin of the idiom can be traced to a poet, Li Bai, of the Tang Dynasty (701-762 AD). He was a very gifted poet and following his death, the people buried him in a beautiful tomb on the Caishi River. Everyday admirers came to visit the tomb and many wrote poetry on the tombstone. One day during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) a scholar came to visit Li Bai's tomb and was appalled to see that it was covered with poorly written poems. He decided to add his own poem to the tombstone to stop future visitors from writing any more. The poem said

A tomb near Caishi River marks the everlasting fame of Li Bai; to and fro, every passer-by writes a poem on the tombstone just like a poor carpenter trying to show his proficiency with the axe before Lu Ban. 

The equivalent English idiom is try to teach one's grandmother how to suck eggs. It is possible that this expression alludes to the fact that a toothless grandmother will be naturally more successful in sucking the contents from an egg than a grandchild with a complete set of teeth. Both the English and Chinese expressions are used to either: a) ridicule or reprimand someone who tries to show off in front of an expert; or b) to express one's modesty when demonstrating a skill in front of colleagues.

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