Tipping-off the Snakes

by Ben Schutz 24. August 2011 19:02

The Chinese idiom 打草惊蛇 (da3 cao3 jing1 she2) literally means rustle the grass and startle the snake. It comes from a story about a county magistrate named Wang Lu (王鲁) who lived in what is today known as the Anhui province in East China.

Wang Lu was thoroughly corrupt. He loved money more than life itself and it was widely known that he took many bribes. However, what was not widely known was that one of Wang's secretaries was equally corrupt and often schemed with Wang.

One day a man went to see Wang to file a complaint alleging that the secretary had committed a number of serious offences involving bribery and extortion. The alleged crimes were very similar to crimes that Wang had been perpetrating himself for many years. Wang Lu was so frightened he might be implicated that he was at a loss about how to handle the complaint, and for a critical few moments, he was unable to think straight. Instead of handling the case in the normal manner and issuing a judgement, he inexplicably wrote the following:

By rustling the grass, you have given someone like me, who resembles a snake hiding in the grass, a timely warning!

The original lesson from this Chinese story was that exposing and punishing one person for their wrongs can serve as a warning (and hence deterrent) for others. However, today the story serves as a warning that indiscreet or premature actions can forewarn an enemy, allowing them to escape or cover their tracks. The English idiom tip off the enemy has an equivalent meaning.

Sometimes the Chinese idiom 打草惊蛇 (da3 cao3 jing1 she2) is translated as the English idiom let sleeping dogs lie. However, I believe this is incorrect. To let sleeping dogs lie is to avoid doing or saying something that you know is likely to provoke a dispute or some other bad outcome. It is used to describe situations where some things are better left unsaid or not done - who in their right mind would tease a sleeping dog!

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A Snake in the Wine

by Ben Schutz 17. August 2011 18:31

The Chinese idiom 杯弓蛇影 (bei1 gong1 she2 ying3) literally means mistake the reflection of a bow in the cup for a snake. It comes from a story (written by by Huang Zunxian in the Qing Dynasty) about a county magistrate called Ying Bin (应郴) who lived during the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD).

One summer day, Ying Bin invited a government official called Du Xuan (杜宣) to come to his house to drink wine. On the north wall of the room where they sat hung a red bow. Due to the particular time of the day, the light coming through the window caused a reflection of this bow to appear in the middle of Du Xuan's wine goblet. Du Xuan mistook the reflection for a squirming snake. Although Du Xuan wasscared stiff, he dared not turn down the hospitality of his superior. So, he closed his eyes and drank the wine believing that he was also swallowing a snake. When Du Xuan returned home later that day, he was experiencing chest and stomach pain. The pain was so severe that he could hardly eat and drink any more. He sent for the doctor, but nothing the doctor tried could reduce the pain.

A couple of days later, Ying Bin visited Du Xuan and asked him what had caused him to become so ill. Du told him about the snake in the wine. Ying thought this was odd, yet he was unable to think of any other explanation. Ying stayed with Du for a while, then bid him farewell and headed for home. As he came through his front door, some light reflected off the red bow on the north wall caught his eye. Suddenly, he realised what had happened to Du Xuan.

Ying immediately sent his man to fetch Du. He seated him where he sat before and offered him another cup of wine. Again, Du saw the snake-like shadow. But Ying was able to quell Du's fears by pointing out to him that the "snake" in the cup was nothing more than a reflection of the bow on the north wall. Immediately following this revelation, Du's illness miraculously disappeared!

Today, Chinese people use the idiom杯弓蛇影 (bei1 gong1 she2 ying3) to describe someone who is being overly suspicious or paranoid about something. I have not been able to think of an equivalent English idiom. If you think you might have one, please contact me.

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