Day Day Up
惊弓之鸟 Birds Startled by the Mere Twang of a Bowstring
In the Warring States Period, there was a man in the State of Wei called Geng Lei. One day he said to the king: 'I can shoot down birds by simply plucking my bowstring.' When the king expressed doubt, Geng Lei pointed his bow at a wild goose flying in the sky, twanged the bowstring, and the goose fell to the ground. Geng Lei said, 'This goose has been hurt in the past. Hearing the twang of the bowstring, it assumed that it was doomed. So it simply gave up trying to live.'
This idiom means that if one has been frightened in the past one's will may become paralysed in a similar situation.
毛遂自荐 Mao Sui Recommending Himself
In the Warring States Period, the State of Qin besieged the capital of the State of Zhao. Duke Pingyuan of Zhao planned to ask the ruler of the State of Chu personally for assistance. He wanted to select a capable man to go with him. A man called Mao Sui volunteered. When the negotiations between the two states were stalled because the ruler of Chu hesitated to send troops, Mao Sui approached him, brandishing a sword. At that, the ruler of Chu agreed to help Zhao, against Qin.
This idiom means to recommend oneself.
世外桃源 A Haven of Peace and Happiness
Tao Yuanming, a famous writer of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420), wrote the well-known essay Peach-Blossom Spring. In it he tells a story which goes like this: A fisherman happened to come upon a place called Peach-Blossom Spring. Squeezing through a cave, he found a village, the residents of which were descendants of refugees from the Qin Dynasty. It was a paradise isolated from the outside world, without exploitation or oppression, and everybody living and working in peace and contentment. The fisherman left the villagers and went home. But he could never find the place again.
This idiom is derived from the above story, and is used to mean an isolated, ideal world.
南辕北辙 Going South by Driving the Chariot North
Once a man wanted to go to the south, but his carriage was heading north. A passer-by asked him: 'If you are going to the south, why is your chariot heading north? 'The man answered,' My horse is good at running, my driver is highly skilled at driving a carriage, and I have enough money. ' The man didn't consider that the direction might be wrong; the better his conditions were, the further he was away from his destination.
The idiom derived from this story indicates that one's action was the opposite effect to one's intention.
画龙点睛 Putting the Finishing Touch to the Picture of a Dragon
In the Southern and Northern Dynasties Period (420-589), there was a painter called Zhang Sengyou. Once he visited a temple and painted on the wall four dragons, but gave none of them eyes. The onlookers felt that this was odd, and asked why he hadn't painted the eyes. He answered, 'Eyes are crucial for dragons. With the eyes painted on, the dragons would fly away.' Nobody believed this, so Zhang Sengyou took up his brush and added eyes to two of the dragons. No sooner had he finished than the two dragons flew into the sky amid a thunderstorm. The two without eyes stayed painted on the wall.
This idiom is used to describe how, when writing or speaking, one or two key sentences will enhance the contents.
画蛇添足 Drawing a Snake and Adding Feet
In the Warring States Period, a man in the State of Chu was offering a sacrifice to his ancestors. After the ceremony, the man gave a beaker of wine to his servants. The servants thought that there was not enough wine for all them, and decided to each draw a picture of a snake; the one who finished the picture first would get the wine. One of them drew very rapidly. Seeing that the others were still busy drawing, he added feet to the snake. At this moment another man finished, snatched the beaker and drank the wine, saying, 'A snake doesn't have feet. How can you add feet to a snake? '
This idiom refers to ruining a venture by doing unnecessary and surplus things.
班门弄斧 Showing Off One's Proficiency with the Axe Before Lu Ban the Master Carpenter
Lu Ban was supposed to be a consummate carpenter in ancient times. It is said that he once carved a wooden phoenix that was so lifelike that it actually flew in the sky for three days. Thus it was considered the height of folly to show off one's skill with an axe in front of Lu Ban.
This idiom excoriates those who show off their slight accomplishments in front of experts.
怒发冲冠 So Angry That One' s Hair Lifts Up One' s Hat
In the Warring States Period, Lin Xiangru, chief minister of the State of Zhao, was sent as an envoy to the State of Qin to ask the ruler of Qin to return a fine piece of jade to Zhao. But the ruler of Qin was rude and unreasonable. Lin was angry, and his hair stood up so stiffly on his head that it lifted up his hat.
This idiom came to be used to mean being extremely angry.
画饼充饥 Allaying Hunger with Pictures of Cakes
In the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280), the king of the Wei, Cao Rui, wanted to select a very capable man to work for him. He said to his ministers: 'When choosing a talented person, always beware of one with a false reputation. A false reputation is just like a picture of a cake; it can' t relieve hunger.'
Later, this idiom came to be used to mean comforting oneself with unrealistic thoughts, without solving practical problems.
一鸣惊人 Amazing the World with a Single Feat
In the Warring States Period, Duke Wei of Qi neglected state affairs, for the first three years of his reign, giving himself over to dissipation. One of his ministers, Chun Yukun who had a good sense of humour, said to him: 'There is a big bird which has neither taken wing nor sung for three years.' The duke answered, 'Once that bird starts to fly and sing, it will astonish the world.' The duke thereupon devoted himself to his duties and built his state up into a powerful one.
This idiom is used to indicate that a person may rise from obscurity and achieve greatness.
守株待兔 Sitting by a Stump, Waiting for a Careless Hare
In the Spring and Autumn Period, a farmer in the State of Song was one day working in the fields when he saw a rabbit bump into a tree stump accidentally and break its neck. The farmer took the rabbit home, and cooked himself a delicious meal. That night he thought, 'I needn't work so hard. All I have to do is wait for a rabbit each day by the stump.' So from then on he gave up farming, and simply sat by the stump waiting for rabbits to come and run into it.
This idiom satirizes those who just wait for a stroke of luck, rather than making efforts to obtain what they need.
狐假虎威 Basking in Reflected Glory
A tiger caught a fox in a forest, and was just about to eat it, when the fox said, 'You mustn't eat me. I was sent by Heaven to rule the animals. By eating me, you will violate the command of Heaven. If you don't believe me, just follow me to see whether the animals are afraid of me.' The tiger agreed, and followed the fox as it walked around the forest. The animals all ran away on seeing them. The tiger thought they were afraid of the fox, so he let it go. He didn't realize that it was him that the beasts were really afraid of.
This idiom means relying on other's power to bully or frighten others.
破镜重圆 A Broken Mirror Made Whole Again
In the Northern and Southern Dynasties when the State of Chen (A.D. 557-589) was facing its demise, Xu Deyan, husband of the princess, broke a bronze mirror into halves. Each of them kept a half as tokens in case they were separated. Soon afterwards, they did lose touch with each other, but the two halves of the mirror enabled them to be reunited.
This idiom is used to refer to the reunion of a couple after they lose touch or break up.
一鼓作气 Rousing the Spirits with the First Drum Roll
During the Spring and Autumn Period, an army from the State of Qi confronted one from the State of Lu. After the first roll of drums from the Qi side to summon Lu to battle, the Lu ruler wanted to attack. But his counsellor Cao Gui said, 'We should wait until the third drum roll, sire.' After the Qi side had beaten the drums three times, the Lu army attacked and defeated the Qi army. After the battle, the king asked Cao Gui the reason for his odd advice. Cao Gui answered, 'Fighting needs spirit. Their spirit was aroused by the first roll or the drums, but was depleted by the second. And it was completely exhausted by the third. We started to attack when their spirit was exhausted. That's why we won.'
This idiom later meant to get something done with one sustained effort.
叶公好龙 Lord Ye Loves Dragons
In ancient times there was a man called Ye Gong who was very fond of dragons. In his home everything, including the walls, windows, doors and even articles of daily use, were decorated with dragon designs. A real dragon was quite impressed when it heard about this, so it went to visit Ye Gong. However, when it stuck its head through the window Ye Gong was frightened and ran away.
This idiom satirizes those who profess to like or support something, but are averse to it in actual practice.
滥竽充数 Passing Oneself Off as a Member of the Orchestra
In the Warring States Period, King Xuan of the State of Qi loved to listen to the yu -- an ancient wind instrument. He would order 300 musicians at a time to play the yu for him. Mr Nan Guo, who couldn't play the instrument, passed himself off as one of the musicians. When King Xuan died, his son King Min succeeded to the throne. King Min also loved yu, but he preferred solo performances. Mr Nan Guo thereupon slipped away from the orchestra.
This idiom is used to describe those who have no actual skills but pretend to be experts, or the passing off of inferior things as high quality ones.
草木皆兵 Every Bush and Tree Looks like an Enemy
In AD 383, the king of Former Qin, Fu Jian, led a huge army to attack Eastern Jin. After losing the first round of fighting, Fu Jian looked down from a city wall, and was terrified when he saw the formidable battle array of the Eastern Jin army. And then looking at the mountain around, he mistook the grass and trees for enemy soldiers. As a result, when the nervous Fu Jian led his army into battle, it suffered a crushing defeat.
This idiom describes how one can defeat oneself by imagining difficulties.
三顾茅庐 Paying Three Visits to the Cottage
In the Three Kingdoms Period, Zhuge Liang lived in seclusion in a thatched cottage. Liu Bei, hearing that Zhuge Liang was very knowledgeable and capable, went to visit him, taking gifts, hoping that Zhuge Liang would agree to assist him with statecraft. He had to make three visits before Zhuge Liang agreed to do so, impressed by his sincerity. From then on, Zhuge Liang helped Liu Bei with all his heart, and made great achievements in both the military and political spheres.
This idiom means persisting with sincerity.
掩耳盗铃 Plugging One's Ears While Stealing a Bell
In the Spring and Autumn Period, a man in the State of Jin took a fancy to a bronze bell and wanted to steal it. The bell was too large and heavy to be moved away, so he decided to smash it to pieces. But when his hammer struck the bell, it gave out a deep booming sound. Fearing that he might be heard, he covered his ears, and carried on with the work.
This idiom comes from the above story. It is used to satirize those who they are smart but only deceive themselves.
卧薪尝胆 Sleeping on Brushwood and Tasting Gall
In the Spring and Autumn Period, the State of Wu defeated the State of Yue, and took the king of Yue, Gou Jian, and his wife prisoner. For several years, Gou Jian laboured as a slave in Wu. When he was released and returned to Yue, Gou Jian was determined to take revenge for losing his state. So that he would never forget his humiliation, he slept on a pile of brushwood and tasted gall before every meal. After ten years of careful preparations, he attacked and finally conquered the State of Wu.
This idiom is used to describe inspiring oneself and working hard to accomplish an ambition.
胸有成竹 Having a Ready Formed Plan
In the Song Dynasty, an artist called Wen Tong was especially fond of drawing bamboos. He planted a lot of bamboos in his garden so that he could observe the process of their growth and appearance in different seasons. He knew bamboos so well that whenever he took up the paintbrush he already had a picture in his mind, and thus he could always paint bamboos in a vivid and lively way.
This idiom is used to indicate having a well thought out plan already before one sets out to do something, making success assured.
笑里藏刀 Hiding a Dagger Behind a Smile
In the Tang Dynasty, there was a minister called Lu Yifu who was always affable and smiling. But in his heart he was very sinister and ruthless. He constantly schemed against people he saw as possible rivals. He was called 'The knife in the smile'.
This idiom, derived from the above story, means disguising a ruthless nature behind a pleasant appearance.
老马识途 An Old Horse Knows the Way
In the Spring and Autumn Period, Duke Huan of Qi led an army to attack a small state in the north. They went in spring when green grass covered the ground. But when they came back it was winter. Everywhere was white with snow and the wind was howling. The troops lost their way. While everybody was worrying, Guan Zhong, the duke's chief minister, suggested: 'An old horse may know the way.' So the duke ordered several old horse to be selected to lead the army. Finally, they found the way back home.
This idiom refers to the value of experience.
如火如荼 Like a Raging Fire
During the Spring and Autumn Period, Duke Fu Chai of Wu led a huge army against the State of Jin. He ordered his men to form three square contingents. The middle one was dressed in white and holding white flags, which looked from a distance just like the flowers of a field full of reeds. The left unit was in red and holding red flags, which looked from afar like flaming fire all over the mountains. The right unit was in black and holding black flags, which looked from a distance like thick black clouds covering the sky. Fu Chai was trying to present to the enemy a show of overwhelming force.
This idiom describes a scene of great momentum and exuberance.
天衣无缝 Divine Garments Without Seams
There was a man called Guo Han in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). One summer night, when the moon was very bright, he suddenly saw a girl descending slowly from the sky. He observed the girl closely, and found that the dress she was wearing was seamless. He was puzzled, and asked why. The girl answered, 'Heavenly clothes are not sewn with needle and thread.'
This idiom is used metaphorically to indicate the flawless handling of things. It can also be used to indicate a perfectly written poem or other literary article.
朝三暮四 Three in the Morning and Four in the Evening
In the Spring and Autumn Period, a man in the State of Song raised monkeys. The monkeys could understand what he said. As the man became poor, he wanted to reduce the monkeys' food. He first suggested that he give them three acorns in the morning and four acorns in the evening. Thereupon, the monkeys protested angrily. Then their owner said, 'How about four in the morning and three in the evening?' The monkeys were satisfied with that.
This idiom originally meant to befool others with tricks. Later it is used to mean to keep changing one's mind.
指鹿为马 Calling a Stag a Horse
In the Qin Dynasty, the prime minister, Zhao Gao, plotted to usurp the throne. Fearing that the other ministers would oppose this, he thought of a way of testing them. He presented a deer to the emperor, and said, 'This is a horse.' The emperor laughed, and said, 'You must be joking; this is a deer.' Then Zhao Gao asked the ministers present. Some kept silent, some agreed that it was a horse, and others said that it was a deer. Later Zhao Gao had all the ministers who had said that it was a deer killed.
This metaphor describes distorting facts by calling white black.
杯弓蛇影 Mistaking the Reflection of a Bow for a Snake
In the Jin Dynasty(265-420), a man called Yue Guang once invited a friend to have a drink at his home. When the friend lifted his cup, he saw a small snake in the wine, yet he forced himself to drink. Back home, the friend recalled the incident, and felt so disgusted that he fell ill. Hearing about this, Yue Guang invited his friend again. He asked him to sit in the same place and drink. Then his friend saw that the image of the snake in the cup was actually the reflection of a bow hung on the wall. Realizing this, the friend recovered quickly.
This idiom indicates a condition of being over suspicious bringing trouble on oneself.
夜郎自大 The Conceited King of Yelang
In the Han Dynasty, there was a tiny country called Yelang on the southwestern border. Small though it was, its ruler was quite proud of his country, thinking it big and powerful. Once a Han envoy visited Yelang. The ruler asked him: 'which is bigger, Han or Yelang?'
Later this idiom came to be used to refer to those who are capable of nothing yet are conceited.
黔驴技穷 The Guizhou Donkey Has Exhausted Its Tricks
In ancient times there were no donkeys in Guizhou Province. Somebody brought a donkey from somewhere and tied it to a tree at the foot of a mountain. A tiger saw the donkey, and thought that it must be a fearsome monster. It hid behind a tree and spied on the donkey. When the donkey brayed, the tiger was frightened, thinking that the donkey was about to devour it. After a while, seeing that the donkey had not moved, the tiger approached it and teased it. The donkey became angry, and kicked the tiger. The tiger thought to itself: 'Is that all it is capable of?' It then jumped on the donkey and ate it.
This idiom is used to mean that one has exhausted one's skills.
揠苗助长 Pulling up Seedlings to Help Them Grow
In the Spring and Autumn Period, there was a farmer who was impatient by nature. He thought his rice shoots were growing too slowly, so he decided to help them by pulling them. One day at dusk, he went back home dog-tired and said to his family: 'I helped the rice shoots grow today.' Hearing this, his son hurried to the field, only to find that all the plants had withered.
This idiom is now often written 拔苗助长. It refers to spoiling things because of being over-anxious for results and ignoring the law of nature.
打草惊蛇 Beating the Grass and Flushing out the Snake
In ancient times there was a county magistrate who took bribes and practised graft. One day, somebody sent him a petition accusing his secretary of practising graft and taking bribes. The magistrate trembled when he read the petition. He wrote on it: 'You have beaten the grass and frightened a snake.'
This idiom refers to alerting the target of one's scheme by being incautious.
狼狈为奸 A wolf Working Hand in Glove with a Jackal
A wolf and a jackal often went hunting together. Once they came to a sheepfold the walls of which were firmly built and too high for them to get over. Then they had an idea: Since the wolf had long forelegs and short hind legs while the jackal had short forelegs and long hind legs, the wolf stood on the neck of the jackal, and the jackal stood up on its hind legs. In this was the wolf climbed over the wall to where the sheep were.
This idiom is used to describe doing evil things in collusion with others.
为虎作伥 Helping the Tiger to Pounce upon Its Victims
An ancient legend has it that a tiger ate a man, and the man's soul could not be freed until it found another man for the tiger to eat.
This idiom means to do evil things in the service of the wicked.
望洋兴叹 Gazing at the Ocean and Sighing
One autumn, the rivers flooded, leaving a vast expanse of water everywhere. Seeing this, the god of the rivers was filled with pride at his vast domain. He then journeyed to the Northern Sea. When he saw the mighty ocean stretching to the horizon, he realized how puny he actually was, and sighed with disappointment.
This idiom originally meant feeling one's own insignificance upon seeing other's might. Now it is mostly used to indicate being able to do nothing but sigh in the face of a huge task.
偃旗息鼓 To Lower the Banners and Silence the Drums
In the Three Kingdoms Period, during a battle between Cao Cao and Liu Bei, the latter ordered his generals Zhao Yun and Huang Zhong to capture Cao Cao's supplies. Cao Cao led a large force against Zhao Yun, who retreated as far as the gates of his camp. There, he ordered that the banners be lowered and the war drums silenced, and that the camp gates be left wide open. Zhao Yun then stationed his troops in ambush nearly. When Cao Cao arrived and saw the situation, he immediately suspected a trap and withdrew his forces.
This idiom is nowadays used to indicate metaphorically halting an attack or ceasing all activities.
望梅止渴 Looking at Plums to Quench the Thirst
In the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280), Cao Cao was once on a campaign during which his men failed to find any water. Cao Cao told them: "There are plum trees ahead. The sweet and sour plums will relieve your thirst." Hearing this, the soldiers thought of the plums and their mouths watered. This cured their thirst.
This idiom means to comfort oneself with fantasy.
病入膏肓 The Disease Has Attacked the Vitals
In the Spring and Autumn Period, King Jing of the State of Jin fell ill. One night he dreamed that the disease turned into two small figures talking beside him. One said, "I'm afraid the doctor will hurt us." The other said, "Don't worry. We can hide above huang and below gao. Then the doctor will be able to do nothing to us." The next day, having examined the king, the doctor said, "Your disease is incurable, I am afraid, Your Majesty. It's above huang and below gao, where no medicine can reach."
This idiom indicates a hopeless condition.
四面楚歌 Songs of Chu on All Sides
At the end of the Qin Dynasty (BC 221-206), the State of Chu and the State of Han fought for control of the country. Xiang Yu, the king of Chu, was besieged at a place called Caixia by the Han army led by Liu Bang. Xiang Yu was in a desperate situation, with little food and only a few soldiers. At night, the surrounding Han troops started to sing Chu folk songs. Xiang Yu was very surprised at this, and said, "Has Liu Bang occupied the whole of Chu? How can he have drafted so many Chu people into his army?" Then he fled together with the remainder of his forces.
This idiom is used metaphorically to mean to be in a helpless and critical situation, surrounded by the enemy on all sides.
杞人忧天 The Man of Qi who Worried that the Sky Would Fall
In the Spring and Autumn Period, in the State of Qi there was a man who always let his imagination run away with him. One day he even worried that the sky would fall on his head. He was so worried that he could neither eat nor sleep. Later, someone persuaded him that his fears were groundless.
This idiom satirizes those who worry unnecessarily.
自相矛盾 Contradicting Oneself
In ancient times, there was a man who sold spears and shields. He used to boast, "My spears are the sharpest things in the world. They can penetrate anything." A moment later he would boast, "My shields are the toughest things in the world. Nothing can penetrate them." One day, a passerby asked him: "What would happen if you threw one of your spears at one of your shields?"
This idiom, "contradicting oneself", and the noun 矛盾, contradiction, all came from the above story.
名落孙山 Failing to Pass an Examination
In the Song Dynasty (960-1279) there was a joker called Sun Shan. One year he went to take the imperial examination, and came bottom of the list of successful candidates. Back in his hometown, one of his neighbours asked him whether the neighbour's son had also passed. Sun Shan said, with a smile: "Sun Shan was the last on the list. Your son came after Sun Shan."
Later, people used this idiom to indicate failing in an examination or competition.
天花乱坠 As If It Were Raining Flowers
In the Southern and Northern Dynasty (420-589), in the reign of King Wu of Liang, there was a monk called Master Yun Guang who was a very accomplished preacher. Once he explained the sutra so profoundly and subtly that the God of Flowers was moved and sent divine flowers down to Earth. Soon the land was covered with flowers.
This idiom was later used metaphorically to describe talking in a vivid and eloquent way (mostly in an exaggerated and impractical manner).
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