Mastery of the Butcher's Cleaver

by Ben Schutz 20. April 2012 20:43

The Chinese idiom 游刃有余 (you2 ren4 you3 yu2) literally means there is plenty of room for the butcher's cleaver. It is based on a story about a butcher who lived in the State of Wei during the Warring States Period (475- 221 AD).

The butcher was one of a kind when it came to butchering cattle. When the Duke of the State of Wei learned of this butcher, he decided that someone with this type of skill would make a good addition to the royal kitchen. So, one day the Duke invited the butcher to strut his stuff in front of an audience, including the Duke himself.

The butcher began by slaughtering an ox in the traditional manner. This did not impress the audience. However, after hanging and dressing the body of the ox on a large pole, the butcher began to cut the carcass into pieces. He held the carcass steady and then, with a few lightening movements of his cleaver, he cut the carcass into a dozen pieces of almost exactly the same size and shape. The audience was left gobsmacked by the fact that such precise cleaving had taken place in just the twinkling of an eye. There was a long pause and then the crowd burst into applause.

The butcher explained to the Duke that he was able to do his work so quickly because he had spent 3 years carefully studying the structure of the cattle skeleton. These detailed study meant that he now had a map of every joint and every piece of bone engraved into his mind's eye. As a result, the master butcher explained, he was able to find plenty of room in a carcass for maneuvering his clever.

Today, Chinese speakers use the idiom 游刃有余 (you2 ren4 you3 yu2) to describe anyone who can do a job with skill and ease. English speakers would describe such a person as being more than equal to the task.

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