Let the Tiger Escape

by Ben Schutz 10. January 2012 19:16

The Chinese idiom 纵虎归山 (zong4 hu3 gui1 shan1) literally means release the tiger to the mountains. The idiom comes from a story about Liu Bei, prior to him becoming a hero during the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280).

During the final years of the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220), China was thrust into a civil war. At the time, Liu Bei was one of the fighting warlords. After a humiliating defeat at the hands of another warload, Liu Bei approached Cao Cao - who later became ruler of the Wei Kingdom - for protection. One of Cao's advisers warned him that Liu was an ambitious man who could become a rival and throw a spanner in the works of Cao's plan for unifying the country. The adviser repeatedly tried to persuade Cao to kill Liu. Cao refused to do so. Instead he took Liu into his confidence and showed him generous hospitality and respect.

One day, Liu offered to lead Cao's army to attack the invading enemy. Cao agreed. This incensed Cao's suspicious adviser. Again, he warned Cao of the dangers.

This is like freeing the dragon to the sea and allowing a tiger to return to the mountains. It could lead to serious problems in the future, so you had better order Liu to return with the troops immediately.

But the horse had already bolted. Liu refused to obey the new order from Cao. He left the territory controlled by Cao's troops and eventually set up his own kingdom. As the adviser had foretold, Liu became one of Cao's chief rivals.

Chinese speakers frequently use this idiom to describe any decision that has potentially disasterous future consequences. English speakers might describe such behaviour as sowing dragon's teeth.

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Riding a Tiger

by Ben Schutz 6. October 2011 12:38

The Chinese expression 骑虎难下 (qi2 hu3 nan2 xia4) literally means he who rides the tiger finds it hard to get off. It originated in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (AD 317-420).

When the first emperor of the Eastern Jin Dynasty, Sima Shao, suddenly died in AD 325, his young son Sima Yan became the ruler. But soon after, one of his generals, Su Jun, decided to rebel against him. In the spring of 328, General Su staged a coup. His rebel forces siezed the capital and put the young emperor and his wife under house arrest.

Upon hearing the news of the fall of the capital, Governor Wen Jiao of Wuchang vowed to put down the rebellion and help reinstate the emperor. He persuaded Tao Kan, the governor of a neighbouring region, to join with him to form an anti-rebel coalition.

The coalition waged war with the rebels for several months. In the early months of the seige to regain the capital, the coalition forces made significant headway. However, the battle eventually developed into a stalemate. As a result, Tao Kan's resolve to continue the war began to waver and he told Wen Jiao that he intended to withdraw his troops.

Wen Jiao was quick to warn him of the disasterous consequences:

Governor Tao, you cannot walk away. We are riding a tiger and it is hard to dismount. If you quit now, all our hard work will be compromised and the anti-rebel front may collapse. Should the emperor one day regain power, everyone in the court will point their finger at you as the villian in the saga that nearly brought everything undone.

This pep-talk convinced the shilly-shallying Tao to re-commit his troops. The two Governers burnt the midnight oil discussing a plan for a new military surge. With this new plan, the coalition forces finally defeated the rebels and the rule of the Eastern Jin Dynasty continued for another 92 years.

The Chinese use this idiom to describe someone who is in a difficult situation (or involved in an action that is dangerous) but is forced to continue as it is not possible to give up. English speakers would say that a person in such a situation has a tiger by the tail.

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The Guizhou Donkey

by Ben Schutz 20. July 2011 18:55

The Chinese idiom 黔驴技穷 (qian2 lv2 ji4 qiong2) literally means the donkey in Guizhou is out of tricks . It comes from a story about a donkey and tiger in ancient Guizhou (a province in China).

In ancient times, Guizhou had no donkeys. One day, a man had a bright idea and decided to ship a donkey to the region. But he soon discovered the donkey was no use, so he took it into the mountains and left it there.

A tiger living in the mountains saw the donkey and, having never seen one before, thought it was a mysterious beast. He hid himself carefully in the woods and warily observed the donkey from a distance.

One day, the donkey brayed. The tiger thought the donkey was going to bite him, but the donkey did nothing more. The tiger quickly became accustomed to the noise and plucked up the courage to move in to get a closer look at the donkey. At last, he decided to provoke the strange beast. The donkey responded by giving the tiger a kick. However, in hindsight this was a mistake as the kick didn't hurt the tiger very much at all. As a result, the tiger concluded that the donkey was weak and posed no threat whatsoever. He sprang on the donkey and enjoyed a tasty meal!

People use this Chinese idiom to describe situations where someone has demonstrated that they lack a certain ability or skill. Todate, I have not been able to think of an English idiom with an equivalent meaning. Please contact me if you think you might know one.

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The Year of the Rabbit

by Ben Schutz 18. February 2011 16:09

The Year of the Rabbit is a time for talking and reflecting after the inevitable dramas of the Tiger year that has just gone.

For the Chinese, rabbits have a couple of key traits.

1) Rabbits are associated with luck. If you see a rabbit flash in front of you, get ready for something good to come your way (见兔顾犬).

2) Rabbits are very cautious and keen to avoid confrontations - they will scurry away down their burrow rather than create a scene.

3) Rabbits are sticklers for the detail. They prefer to work behind the scenes and are always planning ahead - whether it be securing an escape route from trouble (狡兔三窟) or scheming about how to make life a little easier for themselves (守株待兔).

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China | Idioms


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