Remove the Root Cause

by Ben Schutz 6. July 2012 18:49

The Chinese idiom 釜底抽薪 (fu3 di3 chou1 xin1) literally means to stop the soup from boiling, take away the firewood from under the pot. It comes from a story about a dispute between two families that arose when the Northern Wei Dynasty (AD 386-534) split into two states.

Hou Jing was a good friend of Gao Hun, a high ranking official in the court of the Northern Wei Dynasty. After the dynasty split into two states - Eastern Wei and Western Wei - in AD 534, Gao became ruler of Eastern Wei and gave his friend Hou the plumb job of governing Henan Province. Hou respected Gao, but thought that his son (Gao Cheng) was a low-life. So, when Gao Huan finally shuffled off his mortal coil 14 years later and was succeeded by his son, Hou decided to rebel against the court.

Hou first tried to curry favour with the ruler of Western Wei, but this failed as the ruler was suspicious of Hou's motives and suspected that Hou might turn out to be a snake in the grass. When word got back to Gao's son, he decided to get on the front foot and launched an offensive against Henan. In the face of this assault, Hou decided to cut and run. He fled south and finally surrendered himself to the emperor of the Liang Dynasty (AD 502-557) in the south. After hearing about this, Gao Cheng sent the emperor a note requesting Hou's extradition. In the note, he warned the emperor that Hou was a trouble-maker and offered the following advice:

To stop the soup from boiling, you' better take away the firewood from under the pot; and to remove weeds, you'd better destroy their roots.

The emperor did not follow Gao Cheng's advice as he wanted to take advantage of the situation to conquer states in the north. Ultimately, however, the emperor was betrayed by Hou Jing and his plans to reunify China were thwarted.

Today, Chinese speakers use the expression 釜底抽薪 (fu3 di3 chou1 xin1) to describe a strategy that solves a complicated or tricky situation by striking at the root of the trouble.

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Get an Inch and Take a Mile

by Ben Schutz 15. February 2012 00:02

The Chinese idiom 得陇望蜀 (de2 long3 wang4 shu3) literally means covet Sichuan after capturing Gansu. Sichuan and Gansu are two neighbouring provinces in China. The idiom comes from a story about a war decree issued by Emperor Guangwu during the early years of the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220).

Emperor Guangwu personally led a large army to attach eastern Gansu (then called Longxi) which was under the control of opposition forces. The royal army surrounded two strategic towns, but failed to capture them because they were reinforced with troops from Sichuan. After several months of stand-off, the emperor became impatient and decided to return to the capital, leaving his general in charge. Before departing, Emperor Guangwu issued a war decree calling on the royal troops to invade Sichuan after siezing the two towns. The emperor said in the decree:

A man's desire is very hard to satisfy. Hence, after capturing Gansu it is logical that one would wish to take Sichuan.

The two strategic towns proved to be hard nuts to crack. The battle over the two towns ebbed and flowed for the next four years. Then opposition forces then surrendered. The emperor's general siezed the opportunity to capture the two troublesome towns and then he proceeded to conquer Sichuan.

Today, the Chinese idiom 得陇望蜀 (de2 long3 wang4 shu3) has derogatory connotations and is often used to describe people who are greedy and have insatiable ambitions. English speakers might describe these people as getting an inch and then taking a mile.

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All's Fair in Love and War

by Ben Schutz 31. January 2012 21:13

The Chinese idiom 兵不厌诈 (bing1 bu4 yan4 zha4) literally means in war no soldier objects or nothing is too deceitful. It is one of many popular Chinese idioms relating to war and combat.

The idiom was first used by a general, Yu Xu, who lived during the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220). Under the rule of Emperor An, the Qiang people in the northwestern border areas organized a revolt and started to invade the inland provinces. General Yu Xu was ordered to crush the rebellion.

The rebels heard on the grapevine that General Yu was heading toward them with 3,000 soldiers. Since the rebel army numbered in excess of 10,000 soldiers, the rebels decided to prepare an ambush to nip this problem in the bud. However, while marching to meet the rebels, General Yu's agents uncovered the planned ambush. Before they reached the valley where the ambush was planned, General Yu ordered his troops to halt and asked a number of local people to help spread the word that he was requesting reinforcements.

The rebels were fooled by this deception and withdrew from the positions. General Yu and his troops quickly passed throught the valley and into the heartland of Gansu. As General Yu continued to march toward the rebel stronghold he continued to do things (such as leaving behind more field stoves with each passing night) designed to give the impression that his army was continually being reinforced with new troops.

Since the rebels outnumbered General Yu's army 3 to 1, General Yu initially tried to avoid a direct confrontation with the rebels. He bided his time until he found a favourable location for a decisive battle. He then ordered his soldiers to first use their weak bows to entice the rebels to move closer. When they did, General Yu's men switched to their strong bows and cut a swathe through the enemy.

The fact that General Yu's tactics were so unconventional prompted one of his aides to ask him what principle he used to determine them. The General responded:

In war, nothing is too deceitful

Application of the expression is not limited to military combat. The equivalent English idiomatic expression is: all's fair in love and war.

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A Spent Force

by Ben Schutz 29. November 2011 20:32

The Chinese expression 强弩之末 literally means a spent arrow from a powerful crossbow.

During the early years of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC - AD 24) the nomadic Huns made regular incursions across the northern border, plundering villages and killing many innocent people. Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Western Han sent thousands of troops to repel the Huns, but this failed. Finally, in 200 BC, Liu personally lead an army to the northern border to attack the enemy. However, the royal army was too weak and the Huns took them to the cleaners. Liu and his army were forced to retreat to the capital with their tail between its legs.

During the next 50 years, the battle with the nomadic Huns continued without respite, bringing great misery to the people and leaving them down in the dumps. It was not until the reign of Emperor Wu that the nation was again sufficiently prosperous and powerful to entertain the possibility of another pre-emptive attack on the Huns.

Emperor Wu's plan to send the entire royal army thousands of miles to the northern border was supported by most of his court officials. However, one outspoken official, Han An'guo, went against the flow. He said:

Today, we are quite strong. But it is widely known that after travelling a long distance, a strong gust of wind will fade into a tiny breath of air that cannot ruffle the feathers of a bird; and a spent arrow, though shot from a powerful crossbow, will not pierce a thin piece of silk. The same is true of armies. After our troops travel thousands of miles to the northern border, they will be exhausted and will be crushed by the Huns.

Emperor Wu paid no heed to Han's advice. Unfortunately for the Western Han Dynasty, the advice turned out to be accurate.

Today Chinese people use the expression 强弩之末 to describe something or someone that has, due to the passage of time or distance, become less powerful. The English call such persons or things a spent force.

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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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