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 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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