Not Clear Cut

by Ben Schutz 17. April 2012 16:44

The Chinese idiom 模棱两可 (mo2 leng2 liang3 ke3) literally means putting a hand on the edge of an object to grasp both sides of it. It comes from a story about a slick official in the court of the Empress Wu Zetian (AD 624-705).

The Empress Wu was a very cruel ruler and had a heart of stone. She systematically persecuted hundreds of court officials whom she suspected of undermining her rule. Few officials were able to escape her notice and even fewer lasted long in office.

However, one particular official, Minister Su Weidao, did survive. Su was suspected of treason a number of times, but each time he managed to talk his way out of trouble by showing that he was not allied to any disgraced court officials. Eventually, Su was appointed prime minister by the Empress. After hearing of his appointment, a yound man came to ask Su his secret of success. Initially, Su was unable to answer. But, after recalling the ups and downs of his career, the reason for his success suddenly dawned on Su and he explained it to the young man:

My son, in officialdom, you decisions should not be clear cut. Like putting your hand on the edge of an object, you should try to grasp both sides of it. Otherwise, you may be punished for being loyal to just one side.

Su was subsequently nicknamed "Prime Minister Mo Leng" or "prime minister who feels the edge". However, Su's philosophy was not foolproof. After the Empress died in 705, Su was demoted and sent to a remote office in Northwest China.

Today, the Chinese idiom 模棱两可 (mo2 leng2 liang3 ke3) is used to describe something (e.g. a person's attitude or a written desciption) that is formulated in an ambiguous way and hence has a meaning that is not clear cut.


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Be True to One's Word

by Ben Schutz 5. April 2012 17:59

The Chinese idiom 一諾千金 (yi1 nuo4 qian1 jin1) literally means the promise is weightier than one thousand taels of gold. It comes from a story about Ji Bu, a well known chief officer of the imperial bodyguards in the court of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC - AD 24).

Ji's claim to fame was his mastery or martial arts and his commitment to personal honour and loyalty. As a young man, Ji joined the rebel army fighting against the rule of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). After the collapse of the Qin regime, Ji survived a number of trumped up charges against him and became the chief officer of the imperial bodyguards.

Ji remained an outspoken critic against corruption and bad policies. One day, he openly advised his friends to distance themselves from Cao Qiusheng, a silver tongued aide in the court. News of this eventually reach Cao, so the aide approached Ji to discuss the matter. Cao said:

I cannot understand what makes me such a loathesome person in your eyes. You are from the Chu area like me. Everyone in that area, including me, holds you in high regard due to your commitment to personal honour and loyalty. We all say that "a promise made by Ji Bu is weighter than one thousand taels of gold."

Cao's flattery changed Ji's attitude toward him. Ji came to respect Cao and later the two became good friends.

The English idioms be true to one's words and one's word is one's bond have a meaning that is equivalent to the Chinese idiom 一諾千金 (yi1 nuo4 qian1 jin1).

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Tight Lipped

by Ben Schutz 29. March 2012 22:50

The Chinese idiom 守口如瓶 (shou3 kou3 ru2 ping2) literally means keep your mouth shut as tight as a jar lid. It comes from a story about a talented young man, Fu Bi, who lived during the Northern Song Dynasty.

Fu's talent and learning was recognized by the famous Chinese scholar Fan Zhongyan. While Fu was still relatively young, Fan recommended him to the minister in charge of military affairs in the imperial court. From here, Fu went from strength to strength and he rose rapidly from the ranks to become prime minister of the imperial court.

However, Fu did not see eye to eye with his colleague Wang Anshi, a well known reformer of the time. Fu was worried about what would happen should Wang ever become prime minister of the court.

One day the emperor asked Fu to recommend someone as his successor. Fu suggested a number of officials, but not Wang. The emperor was a little surprised. He asked Fu whether he thought Wang was a worthy candidate. This time Fu remained tight lipped, and it suddenly dawned upon the emperor that Wang and Fu did not get along. The emperor later came to support Wang's bold rural economic reform program, so Fu resigned and move back home.

When later asked by friends about his most important rule for success in political life, Fu related this story about Wang to illustrate that:

You must keep your mouth shut as tight as a jar lid.

Today, Chinese people use the idiom 守口如瓶 (shou3 kou3 ru2 ping2) to describe people who are able to keep things confidential.


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The Sharp Shooter

by Ben Schutz 22. March 2012 18:24

The Chinese idiom 百步穿杨 (bai3 bu4 chuan1 yang4) literally means shooting an arrow through a willow leaf one hundred paces away. The expression comes from a story about a legendary archer named Yang Youji who lived in the State of Chu during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC).

Yang started learning martial arts and archery when he was a child. It quickly became clear that Yang was in a class of his own and it was not long before he became the top archer in his home district.

One day, Yang was watching a group of archers competing near his home. They were shooting a target erected beneath a willow tree at a distance of fifty paces. Most of the archers were able to hit this target, so it was difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Then Yang had a brainwave that would enable the best archer to come to the fore. He suggested that the competition organisers paint a willow leaf red and then ask the competitors to shoot at the leaf from a distance of one hundred paces. All the competitors tried and failed. Yang finally asked if he could have a try. Yang took the bow and concentrated on the red leaf quivering gently in the breeze. He slowly released the bow string. The arrow flew through the air with a powerful whoosh and pierced a hole in the leaf.

The crowd applauded and cheered, but one sceptical competitor demanded that Yang repeat the feat. Yang collected one hundred arrows, and the crowd watched in awe as he hit the target one hundred times.

Today the Chinese idiom 百步穿杨 (bai3 bu4 chuan1 yang4) is widely used to describe the unfailing accuracy of an expert marksman - a sharp shooter - regardless of whether he or she uses an arrow, stone, knife, gun or missile. I have not been able to think of an equivalent English idiom.

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A Meteoric Rise

by Ben Schutz 7. March 2012 20:52

The Chinese idiom 青云直上 (qing1 yun2 zhi2 shng4) literally means a direct rise into the blue sky. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the idiom was a special term used to describe someone who had been rapidly promoted to a high official position - a so-called rocket cadre. However, today the idiom has a more general usage and describes anyone who has made rapid progress in their career.

The idiom comes from a story about an official, Fan Ju, in the imperial court of the State of Wei. On one occasion Fan accompanied his patron on a mission to the State of Qi. The ruler of Qi had learned that Fan was an outstanding strategist and had the gift of the gab. Consequently, he sent someone to try to persuade Fan to stay in the State of Qi and work for him. Fan declined the offer.

However, upon returning to the State of Wei, Fan was wrongly suspected of treason and brutally punished. With the help of his friends, Fan fled to the State of Qin. He changed his name and made a fresh start. The Duke of Qin also appreciated Fan's talents and it was not long before the Duke appointed Fan the prime minister of his court.

Several years later, the State of Qin invaded the State of Wei. Fan's previous patron in the State of Wei was sent as a special envoy to negotiate a truce. The envoy was dumbstruck when he saw Fan sitting at the negotiating table as the prime minister of the rival state. When he recovered his composure, he began to apologise profusely for his past behaviour, saying

I did not expect you would have such a direct rise into the blue sky

After giving him a lecture, Fan accepted the apology and allowed the envoy to return to the State of Wei.

English speakers would describe someone who has experienced a rapid advancement in their career like Fan Ju as rising rapidly from the ranks. Originally this idiom (like the Chinese one) had a more narrow interpretation. It was used to describe a person in the armed forces who was rapidly promoted from the rank of private to become an officer - this was a rare feat indeed.

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A Crowded Courtyard

by Ben Schutz 29. February 2012 23:11

The Chinese idiom 门庭若市 (men2 ting2 ruo4 shi4) literally means the entrance and the courtyard are crowded with people like a market bazaar. It comes from 《战国策》 composed by Liu Xiang in the Western Han Dynasty.

The story is about the self conscious Prime Minister Zou Ji in the court of the State of Qi during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). The Prime Minister was constantly asking others whether he was as handsome as his good friend Xu Gong, a man who was regarded as good looking. His wife, his concubine and his best friend all told Zou that he was more handsome than Xu Gong. However Zou was not convinced and decided to put Xu Gong's looks under the microscope himself.

He invited Xu Gong to dinner. After looking closely at his friend over dinner, Zou decided that he was not as good looking as Xu Gong. Next morning, Zou related his story to the King Wei of the State of Qi:

Last night I could not sleep. I was completely stumped why my wife, concubine and best friend all lied to me. But, after much puzzling I have come to the conclusion that my wife flatters me, my concubine fears me and my friend wants to ask me a favour.

And then he went further and said directly to King Wei:

From this I realize that Your Highness as king of a large state like Qi must constantly face the problem of being deceived by sweet words, for there is no one who does not flatter you, fear you or seek your favour.

The king agreed. He decided to address the problem by issuing a decree that offered awards to those brave enough to criticize him and his court. In the first few days, the court was as crowded as a marker bazaar. However, as the king began to revise his policies to address the criticism, the crowds thinned out and eventually almost no one came to complain. The State of Qi became stronger with each passing day and neighbouring states sent their envoys to pay tribute.

Originally, this Chinese idiom was used to illustrate the merits of conquest by peaceful means, but today it is more often used to describe a place that is crowded with visitors seeking an audience with someone important (e.g. a public official). Also, the idiom is sometimes used to describe a shop that has alot of customers.

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Drawing New Faces

by Ben Schutz 21. February 2012 19:15

The Chinese idiom 别开生面 (bie2 kai1 sheng1 mian4) literally means draw new faces. It comes from a story about Cao Ba, a painter who lived during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). Cao began studying calligraphy and painting as a child and later became well known for his paintings of people and horses.

In AD 718, Emperor Xuanzong invited Cao to paint at the imperial court. The emperor was so impressed with Cao's work that he declared Cao the official painter of the court. Near the imperial court stood a grand pavillion which was famous for its frescoes depicting the 24 heroes who helped establish the Tang Dynasty. After years of exposure to the elements, the plaster had begun to peel and the colour start to fade. One day, the emperor asked Cao to restore the murals to their former glory.

After many days work, Cao completed the job. The revitalized paintings caused a sensation. Some of the figures were so vivid that some onlookers felt they were about to step out of the wall.

Several years later, the famous Chinese poet, Du Pu, wrote a poem waxing lyrical about Cao's work on the frescoes. One of the verses used the expression 别开生面 (bie2 kai1 sheng1 mian4) to describe how vividly Cao had recreated the faces of the heroes.

Despite being put on a pedestal for his work on the frescoes, Cao later fell from grace after he offended the emperor over a minor matter. Cao was the forced onto the streets and he eeked out a living by painting the portraits of passers-by.

Today the Chinese idiom 别开生面 (bie2 kai1 sheng1 mian4) is used to describe someone who adopts a new style, or as an English speaker might say, someone who breaks new ground.

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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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A Sunday School Truth

by Ben Schutz 7. February 2012 21:51

The Chinese idiom 老生常谈 (lao3 sheng1 chang2 tan2) literally means the mere platitudes or commonplace talk of an old scholar. The idiom comes from a story about an "old scholar" called Guan Lu who lived in the State of Wei during the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280).

Guan was a child prodigy and by the tender age of 15 he was renown for his scholarly abilities. He was so well versed in classical literature and astronomy that he was invited to a local magistrate's home to discuss these matters with more than 100 philosophers. These philosophers tried to completely stump the young prodigy with curly questions, but it was to no avail.

Guan's prestige continued to grow and officials sought him out for advice. One day, two ministers of the imperial court asked Guan to fortell their fortunes and career paths because they had both had bad dreams the previous night. Guan learned that the two officials were nasty pieces of work. They were vindictive and greedy and despised by their colleagues and subordinates. So Guan told the officials that their dreams indicated a gloomy future beset with many problems and difficulties.

One minister was like a cat on a hot tin roof - he became very anxious and worried about what Guan had told him. The other minister tried to console him by telling him that Guan's words were the commonplace talk of a scholar and that he should not work himself into a lather over nothing.

However, several months later both ministers were executed for their involvement in a bungled coup. Guan subsequently told his friends that this was a typical example of what can happen if people ignore the truth expressed by a commonplace notion. English speakers call these commonplace notions Sunday school truths.

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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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