Visiting the Thatched Hut of Zhuge Liang

by Ben Schutz 21. November 2012 21:19

The Chinese idiom 三顾茅庐 (san1 gu4 mao2 lu2) literally means Liu Bei makes three calls at the thatched cottage to request Zhuge Liang to take up a responsible post. The idiom comes from 《出师表》 created by Zhuge Liang in the Three-Kingdoms Period (AD 220-280).

Before becoming ruler of the Kingdom of Shu, Liu Bei pulled out all the stops trying to find the most talented people to help him in his cause of unifying China. While conducting this search, Liu heard on the grapevine of a highly-gifted strategist and scholar by the name of Zhuge Liang living in seclusion in a thatched hut in Longzhong. He decided to pay this scholar a visit.

When Liu and his two closest friends arrived at the thatched hut, they were told by Zhuge's houseboy that the master of the house was away for several weeks. Very disappointed, they left the hut empty-handed. A few months later, Liu and his friends returned to the hut again - this time during a heavy snowstorm. But, once again they were told that Zhuge was not home.

Because neither of these two visits had borne fruit, Liu's friends tried to persuade him that to continue calling would be a fruitless exercise, akin to ploughing the sand. One of them even suggested that Zhuge's failure to make a return call was a sign of his impoliteness. However, Liu could not be dissuaded from continuing to seek out the scholar. He went to the thatched cottage in Longzhong a third time - this time alone.

Zhuge Liang, moved by Liu's sincerity and never say die attitude, personally met him at the entrance of the village. The two men had a long discussion regarding the military turmoil in China and together they devised a long-term plan to unify the country. Zhuge became Liu's top military adviser and later the prime minister of Liu's regime.

Today, 三顾茅庐 (san1 gu4 mao2 lu2) is a very popular Chinese idiom used to refer to someone who repeatedly requests another to take up a position of responsibility. I have been unable to think of an equivalent English idiom - if you can think of one, please let me know.

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The sky is falling

by Ben Schutz 22. October 2012 00:25

The Chinese idiom 杞人忧天 (qi3 ren2 you1 tian1) literally means the man of Qi who fears that the sky might fall down. It comes from a story (《列子·天瑞》written by Lie Yukou during the Warring States Period) about a man living in the State of Qi during the Zhou Dynasty (more than 3,000 years ago).

This man living in the State of Qi was plagued by the fear that one day the sky might fall down and the earth might collapse. He was so tied up in knots by this fear that he could not eat or sleep. His friends became very concerned about his mental health and one of them eventually decided to have a heart to heart with the man. This friend said:

You do not need to worry about the sky falling. It is just a mass of air and every second of it is moved around by the many people who inhale and exhale it. Furthermore, the earth is a very solid structure, made of huge masses of rock and soil. These rocks and soil extend into every corner. People walk, live and work on these masses every day. It is simply not possible for the earth to collapse.

Thanks to his friends earnest words, the man from Qi came to realise that his fear were completely unfounded. He began to live a normal life again. His wife and family was very grateful for this change in his attitudes.

Today, Chinese speakers use the idiom 杞人忧天 (qi3 ren2 you1 tian1) to describe anyone who entertains unnecessary worries. English speakers have an equivalent idiomatic expression. They would describe unnecessarily anxious people as being liable to get all worked up over nothing.

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The Phoney Player

by Ben Schutz 4. October 2012 20:08

The Chinese idiom 滥竽充数 (lan4 yu2 chong1 shu4) literally means to pass oneself off as a member of the ensemble.The idiom was first used over 2,000 years ago to describe the behaviour of Nanguo, a subject of the King of the State of Qi.

The King of Qi loved to listen to Yu (ancient wind instruments) played in unison. He regularly employed over 300 Yu players to perform at his court and offered them generous pay and benefits to ensure that he retained the cream of the crop. Nanguo was not well versed in the art of playing the Yu, but he envied the Yu players and wished to enjoy the lucrative benefits they received. So, he went to the court and told the King that he was an excellent Yu player and that he wanted to join the imperial ensemble. The King was very happy to recruit a master Yu player.

During each performance, Nanguo imitated the finger movements of the other players and pretended to play very enthusiastically. The King did not discover that Nanguo was in fact pulling the wool over his eyes and, as a result, was very impressed by Nanguo's performances. Years later the King died and was succeeded by his son who also loved to listen to the Yu. However, the new ruler preferred solo performances and asked each of the players in the imperial ensemble to perform one by one. Nanguo knew the game was up and headed for the hills before it was his turn to perform a solo.

Today, the Chinese idiom 滥竽充数 (lan4 yu2 chong1 shu4) can be used in a derogatory way when referring to someone else ("He is completely lacking talent and should never have been appointed to the post") or it can be used to show modesty regarding one's own abilities ("Although I am in this post, I am not the best or most qualified person to occupy it") . English speakers convery a similar meaning when they say that someone or something is there to make up the numbers.

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Bring the Dragon to Life

by Ben Schutz 10. September 2012 21:51

The Chinese idiom 画龙点睛 (hua4 long2 dian3 jing1) literally means bring the painted dragon to life by painting in the pupil of its eyes. It comes from a legend about a famous painter, Zhang Sengyao, who served in the court of Emperor Liang Wu.

Legend has it that whenever his sons were away on official duties, the emperor would feel down in the dumps and would ask Zhang to visit him and paint portraits of his sons to cheer him up. The pictures were so vivid that the emperor felt that he was actually seeing his boys in the flesh.

One day Zhang was painting four dragons on the wall of the Anle Temple in Jinling (now the capital of Jiangsu Province). A large crowd gathered to watch him at work. When he finished the work, the crowd showered him with praise. Yet a number of the onlookers were perplexed by the fact that the dragons had eyes, but no pupils. When queried about this, Zhang replied

If I added pupils to the dragons, they might fly off into the wide blue yonder

Many of the onlookers thought the artist was pulling their leg. To convince the crowd, Zhang went ahead and added pupils to the eyes of two of the dragons on the wall. Suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, a thunderstorm rolled in and the two dragons leapt out of the wall and soared off into the dark cloudy sky. The crowd was gobsmacked to find only two dragons left on the wall - the ones without pupils in their eyes.

Today, Chinese speakers use the idiom 画龙点睛 (hua4 long2 dian3 jing1) to refer to adding the final crucial touch to a work of art that brings it to life or putting in the word or two that clinches the argument. I have not been able to think of an English idiom that has the equivalent meaning. If you know one, please let me know.

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When the Birds are Gone and the Hares are Bagged

by Ben Schutz 24. July 2012 19:23

The Chinese have two idioms that refer to the (reprehensible) practice of people casting aside those who have helped them to achieve their position of power or success - these are 鸟尽弓藏 (niao3 jin2 gong1 cang2) and 兔死狗烹 (tu4 si3 gou3 peng1). The first one literally means to cast aside the bow after the birds are gone, while the second literally means cook the hounds once all the hares are bagged.

During the war between the State of Wu and the State of Yue in eastern China during the Spring and Autumn Period (770 - 476 BC), the King of Yue had two top officials, Fan Li and Wen Zhong. Soon after the State of Wu was conquered, Fan Li vanished into thin air. Initially, the King of Yue suspected that Fan might be trying to draw power to himself so he could rebel against the court. However, the ruler changed his tune when Fan's shoes and clothes were found, together with a note from Fan, on the shores of Taihu Lake. In the note, Fan said that since the ruler of the State of Wu had committed suicide there were only two persons who might cause problems for the King of Yue. In addition, Fan said that he had solved the problem by getting rid of both of them. One of the persons was Xi Shi (the famed beauty who was sent to the State of Wu as a gift) as she might distract the King from state affairs. The other person was Fan himself because he now had too much clout in the court.

The King assumed from the note that Fan had killed Xi Shi and then drowned himself in the lake. However, a few months later Wen Zhong (the King's other top official) received a letter from Fan. The letter warned Wen to quit his post and head for the hills as soon as possible. Fan explained himself as follows:

After the birds are gone, the bows will be cast aside, and after the hares are bagged, the hunting dogs will be cooked. And so too the King is unlikely to share his glory days with his veteran aids.

Although Wen was happy to hear that his former colleague was alive, he paid no heed to Fan's advice. Unfortunately for Wen, not long after Fan's letter, the King started to view Wen as a threat. Wen eventually committed suicide under suspicious circumstances. Legend has it that Fan changed his name and lived happily ever after with the famed beauty Xi Shi.

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Grind an Iron Rod into a Needle

by Ben Schutz 20. July 2012 00:13

The Chinese idiom 只要功夫深,铁杵磨成针 (zhi3 yao4 gong1 fu shen1, tie3 chu3 mo2 cheng2 zhen1) literally means so long as you have put in a great deal of effort, you can grind an iron rod into a needle. It comes from 《方舆胜览》, a story about Li Bai (a famous poet in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 - 907)) told by Zhu Mu in the Song Dynasty.

Born into a rich family in the Tang Dynasty, Li was second to none when it came to writing Chinese classic poetry. He had begun to write poems when he was only ten, but he was not a hardworking student and he tended to spend most of his time outdoors.

One day during his travels, Li saw an old woman grinding an iron rod on a big grindstone in front of a straw-thatched hut. Li asked the woman what she was doing. When the old woman told Li that she was making a needle, Li doubled up with laughter thinking the old woman had lost her marbles. The old woman reprimanded him and offered him some prescient words of wisdom

Don't laugh young man. As long as I keep grinding, I will make a fine needle out of this coarse rod someday.

Li Bai stopped to ponder her words and came to understand what she meant. Then, with great respect, he bowed deeply to the needle grinder and turned back toward home. After that day, Li became a very dedicated student and gave his undivided attention to his studies. His efforts paid off and he eventually became one of China's greatest poets.

Today Chinese speakers use the expression 只要功夫深,铁杵磨成针 (zhi3 yao4 gong1 fu shen1, tie3 chu3 mo2 cheng2 zhen1) (shortened to 铁杵磨成针 (tie3 chu3 mo2 cheng2 zhen1)) to encapsulate the idea that success is always possible if you work hard for a sufficiently long period of time. For English speakers the same idea is captured by the English idiom perseverence spells success.

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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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A Dog's Tale

by Ben Schutz 6. June 2012 20:08

The expression 狗尾续貂 (gou3 wei3 xu4 diao1) literally means substituting a dog's tail for sable and comes from a story about a fierce and complex power struggle in the court of the Western Jin Dynasty (AD 265-316).

When Sima Yan became the first emperor of the Western Jin dynasty, he bestowed titles and territories upon a large number of nobles believing that this would shore-up his powerbase. However, his belief was mistaken. The decision led to factional strife, and after Sima Yan died in AD 290, the power struggled escalated out of control.

Finally, in AD 300, Sima Lun (the general of the royal army) led a successful coup to became the new ruler. However, Sima Lun ultimately followed the same round to ruin as his predecessor Sima Yan. In order to shore-up his popular support, Sima Lun offered titles to several thousand of his followers. As a result, the court quickly ran out of it supply of official seals needed for certificates of appointment as well as the sable used to decorate the hats of the royal officers.

To solve this problem, the emperor decided to use wooden plates to replace the metal seals and dog's tails as a substitute for the sable. People began to poke fun at the emperor (by coining the phrase substituting a dog's tail for sable) and he soon became a laughing stock. Needless to say, the Western Jin dynasty was short-lived.

Today, this Chinese idiom is used to criticize those who create an inferior sequel to a recognised masterpiece. In English, there are many idioms based on dogs - for example, as sick as a dog, work like a dog, fight like cat and dog and go to the dogs - but I have been unable to think of one that has an equivalent meaning to the Chinese idiom 狗尾续貂 (gou3 wei3 xu4 diao1).

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Learning to Walk

by Ben Schutz 20. May 2012 22:59

The Chinese idiom 邯郸学步 (han2 dan1 xue2 bu4) literally means learning the way they walk in Handan.

Legend has it that the people living in a place called Handan in the State of Zhao had a unique, beautiful way of walking. When he heard about this, a youngster from the State of Yan decided to travel to Handan to learn the art. However, after repeated attempts to copy the locals, the youngster failed to get the hang of it.

He decided that he needed to go back to basics and learn the Handan method from scratch. So, the following day he began to mimick the steps of toddlers living in Handan, rather than the adults. But, the situation went from bad to worse. Now, every time he took a step he had to think how to put his foot, how long his stride should be and how to move his head, body and arms. Eventually, he found that he was not only unable to mimick the people in Handan, but he had forgotten how to walk at all and he had to crawl all the way home.

Today, the Chinese idiom 邯郸学步 (han2 dan1 xue2 bu4) is used to describe people who slavishly imitate others and as a result lose their own originality. I have not been able to think of an English idiom with an equivalent meaning.

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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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PANDA BLOG

Visiting the Thatched Hut of Zhuge Liang

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21. November 2012 21:19 | Rating: 4 / 2

The sky is falling

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22. October 2012 00:25 | Rating: 3.3 / 3

The Phoney Player

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4. October 2012 20:08 | Rating: 0 / 0

Bring the Dragon to Life

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10. September 2012 21:51 | Rating: 0 / 0

When the Birds are Gone and the Hares are Bagged

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24. July 2012 19:23 | Rating: 0 / 0

Grind an Iron Rod into a Needle

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20. July 2012 00:13 | Rating: 0 / 0

Remove the Root Cause

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6. July 2012 18:49 | Rating: 0 / 0

A Dog's Tale

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6. June 2012 20:08 | Rating: 5 / 1

Learning to Walk

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20. May 2012 22:59 | Rating: 0 / 0

Mastery of the Butcher's Cleaver

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20. April 2012 20:43 | Rating: 5 / 2

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