The Shield or the Sword?

by Ben Schutz 5. May 2011 02:12

The Chinese expression 自相矛盾 is a very popular idiom. It is commonly used to describe situations where people contradict themselves or their behaviour contradicts their stated beliefs. It literally means attacking one's shield with one's own spear and comes from a 2,000 year old story about a spear and shield salesman in the State of Chu.

One day the man was marketing his wares to the gathered crowd. He claimed that his spears and shields were the best in the land. In one breathe, he claimed his shields were so strong that nothing could ever penetrate them and, then in the next breathe, he said his spears were so sharp that nothing could withstand them. After listening to the seller's pitch, a man in the crowd stepped forward and said:

You just told us that your shields are the strongest in the world and that your spears are the sharpest. What happens if you use your spears on your shields?

The seller was dumbstruck and could not explain away the contradiction.

The idiomatic expression, tie oneself up in knots, expresses a similar sentiment in English.

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Finding a Lost Sword

by Ben Schutz 3. May 2011 18:22

The Chinese idiom 刻舟求剑 (ke4 zhou1 qiu2 jian4) literally means finding a lost sword by marking the gunwale of a moving boat.

The story behind this saying is about a man in the State of Chu who was crossing a river in a boat. His sword accidentally slipped from its sheath into the water. The man loved the sword and wanted to get it back. Suddenly having a brain wave, he took a small knife from his pocket and made a mark on the side of the boat (the gunwale) where he had dropped the sword. He said to his puzzled companions,

I have made a mark here to remind me where my sword fell into the water. Later on I will be able to retrieve my sword by looking at the location of the mark.

When the boat eventually docked at the other side of the river, the man jumped quickly into the river to retrieve his lost sword. Of course this was a waste of time (劳民伤财 lao2 ming2 shang1 cai2) - rather stupidly, he had not realised that while the boat was moving the lost sword was not.

The moral behind the story is that it is important to take into consideration changes in the circumstances and to adapt appropriately to those changes. This is a key concept for the Chinese and every school pupil in China has it drilled into them from an early age.

I have been unable to think of an equivalent English expression for this Chinese idiom. Please feel free to contact us if you think you know an English idiom or proverb that expresses a similar sentiment to 刻舟求剑 (ke4 zhou1 qiu2 jian4).

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