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bhchao

Chinese historical idioms

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bhchao

Many of today's Chinese idioms come from historical events. Here are five idioms derived from Warring States to the Han period.

1) As many of us know, Liu Bang's most famous general during the Chu-Han war, Han Xin, was recruited into the Han camp on Xiao He's advice. Han Xin left Liu Bang's camp one night disillusioned when the latter first rejected his offer of service. Xiao He followed Han Xin on horseback and pleaded with the general to come back and help Liu Bang. The general finally agreed and won victory after victory for Liu Bang.

After the establishment of the Han dynasty, Han Xin conspired with another general against Liu Bang while the latter was away campaigning. Xiao He heard of this and plotted with Empress Lu Zhi to entice Han Xin to go to the palace. There he was arrested and executed. Thus both the elevation and destruction of Han Xin was caused by Xiao He.

The saying "成也箫何, 败也箫何" came to mean success or failure caused by the same person.

2) When Xiang Yu and his remaining men had their backs against the river while surrounded by Liu Bang's troops, a boatman on a raft persuaded Xiang Yu to go with him across the river so he can prepare a comeback. Xiang Yu said, "When I crossed the River and went west, I took with me 8,000 sons and brothers from east of the Yangtze. Now none of them has returned; how can I face the elders east of the Yangtze?" After declining this offer, Xiang Yu turned around, charged against the Han troops, killed over a hundred men, and finally cut his own throat.

Later the expression "无 面 目 见 江东 父 老" came to describe the feelings of a person who is too ashamed to face his elders after failing at some kind of venture.

3) Shang Yang, the Qin Legalist statesman during the Warring States period, was hated by many for his harsh Legalist laws, such as killing entire families for one person's offense as well as mutilation and compulsory labor. Shang Yang became a fugitive after the death of the Qin king. He finally found refuge at an inn operated by a longtime friend. The friend told him that according to Shang's own rules, an innkeeper was required to register with the authorities the name and status of every person who registered at the inn. Otherwise the innkeeper will face death himself. Shang Yang begged his friend not to report him, but the innkeeper had no choice. Shang Yang was eventually taken by the authorities and executed by his own method of punishment that he devised for the Qin kingdom. His arms and legs were tied to four chariots, and he was tore apart by the horses being whipped in four divergent directions.

The saying "作法自毙" came to refer to someone who gets punished by his own rules.

4) Xiang Yu and his men once tried to kill Liu Bang during the Hongmen feast held in Liu's honor. Xiang Yu was upset that Liu had reached the Xianyang capital first. When Liu received news that Xiang Yu was approaching the capital, Zhang Liang advised him to keep all the valuables where they are, and accept Xiang's invitation to the feast to apologize for any wrongdoing.

Xiang Yu's crafty advisor Fan Zhen thought of a plan to get rid of Liu Bang at the feast by using a sworddance to kill him. While the swordsman was performing his routine, Liu Bang's advisors noticed that something fishy is going on. They finally realized the swordsman's motives. As the swordsman was nearing the completion of his deadly routine, one of Liu Bang's men danced with the swordsman with his own sword, and prevented the routine from reaching Liu Bang. Liu later used a faked headache as an excuse to persuade Xiang Yu to let him leave the banquet.

The phrase "鸿 门 宴" was later used to mean "an entertainment created solely for the intent of eliminating the guest of honor." 项 庄舞剑, 薏 在 沛 公 means the same thing. Both refer to seemingly friendly acts with hostile intent.

5) Su Qin (苏 秦) was a native of Luoyang during the Warring States period. He wanted to become an advisor to the rulers of several states, but failed. Returning home in low spirits, his parents treated him coldly as if he was not their son. His wife did not rise to greet him, and his sister-in-law would not prepare meals for him.

After a year of searching for employment, he finally persuaded the six states to make an alliance against the state of Qin. He himself was made prime minister of the alliance. Returning home in pomp and decorated, his parents cleaned the house for his arrival. His wife dared not look in his face. His sister-in-law crawled on all fours and kowtowed to him, apologizing for her past behavior. He sighed and said, "I am the same person now as I was before. Now that I am rich and hold a high position, everyone is in awe of me and trying to flatter me" His sister-in-law replied, "It is because you now hold a high ranking position."

The saying "前倨后恭" came to be used to indicate how people's attitude towards someone can easily change, depending on one's change of fortune. In other words, looking down on someone when he or she is in a time of misfortune, and suddenly flattering them when their fortunes are up.

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Altair

Thanks for all the interesting stories. Any more you have would be welcome.

I also have a question about some of the Chinese on one of the links (specifically http://www.china10k.com/trad/history/2/22/22z/22z08/22z0804.htm). If someone would not mind helping with translations and interpretations, I would be grateful. Wenlin helps me get 90% of the way to complete understanding, but the last 10% is still tough.

What does this mean: 相府中有人有小錯,曹參也隱匿不言。? Does it mean: "When someone in the Prime Minister's mansion would make a small mistake, Cao2 Can1 (reading?) would also hide and remain silent"? If this is correct, I do not understand the significance of this statement in the story. Why are "small" mistakes important.

The story also has the following sentence: 現在陛下承有天下,我等守臣子職位,遵守成法不使其有失不就行了嗎. How does one interpret 守臣子職位? There seems to be one too many characters. Also, what is the explanation or translation of 其?

How about "曹參為漢相國三年,清靜無為,不給百姓增加負擔。" Isn't this in praise of Cao Can's understanding of correct Daoist principle? If so, why does 蕭規曹隨 carry a negative meaning?

Lastly, what the heck does the song at the end mean: 他死以後,百姓唱道:「蕭何為法,顜若劃一﹔曹參代之,守而勿失。載其清淨,民以寧一?

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bhchao

Here is an idiom originating from the Tang Dynasty:

The poet Du Mu (杜牧) once went to 湖 Prefecture. There he met an old woman leading a very beautiful young girl. Du Mu made the old woman promise that the girl would wait for him for ten years. After that, if he did not come to marry her, the girl would be free to marry somebody else. Then Du Mu gave the old woman a large sum of money as his betrothal gift and left. But 14 years passed before he returned. By then, he found that the girl had been married for three years and had already given birth to two children. In his sorrow, Du Mu wrote a poem called, "Melancholy of Separation":

In the quest for spring I met delay.

No need for sad resentment of the flowery season.

The winds have blown away the deep crimson.

Now the green leaves make fine shade,

And the boughs are laden with fruit.

Later, "green leaves make fine shade" (绿 叶成荫) came to be used to describe a woman who has married and become the mother of many children. In today's words, a man's sorrow when the woman he truly loves gets married to someone else and have children.

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bhchao

During the Western Jin Dynasty, the poet 左思(Zuo Si) spent 10 years writing a book on the capitals of the Three Kingdoms of Wei, Shu, and Wu. The poems received positive reviews, and there was a rush to copy them in Luoyang, where he lived. Within a short time, the poems were in short supply and became out of stock due to the high demand, resulting in a price increase.

The allusion 洛阳纸贵 came to be used to praise a highly popular, well-received literary work.

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skylee

This is about 請君入甕 , which happened in the late 7th century -

周兴当权的时间很短,但他在冤狱史上的地位却非常重要。有一天,武曌把一件密告周兴谋反的检举信件交给来俊臣调查。来俊臣跟周兴是最好的朋友,而且那一天二人又恰恰在一起共进午餐。任何人都以为来俊臣一定会为他的好友昭雪,但这是不懂特务本质的人的想法。特务的本质是互相吞噬的,对越是要好的朋友越加残忍,用以表示他自己的清白与忠贞。来俊臣问周兴说:“有一个被告,态度非常顽强,不肯承认谋反,最好用什么办法对付他?”周兴说:“简单的很,把他装到大瓮(缸)里,四周燃起炭火,他就非承认不可。”来俊臣教人如法布置妥当后,对周兴说:“有人告兄台谋反,我奉命调查,请君入瓮。”周兴的尴尬与狼狈,以及结局,是可以推断的。从此,“请君入瓮”一语,成为中国最有名的成语之一。

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skylee

This is the story of "杯酒釋兵權" from 中國人史綱.

赵匡胤改国号为宋帝国——也可以称之为宋王朝,但它事实上只控制了中国领土的一部分。这是一个长命政权,超过三个世纪。只不过在开始时没有人看出它会有这种长命的迹象,一连串儿戏般的改朝换代,它也可能随时被一场变兵推翻。

新任宰相赵普向赵匡胤提出这个问题,并暗示几位最亲信的高级将领石守信等的危险性。赵匡胤保证说:“我待他们恩重如山,绝不会有问题。”赵普说:“后周皇帝郭荣待你也恩重如山,你怎么会有了问题?而且我的意思不是说他们会主动叛变,只是说他们都不是良好的统御人才,万一部下贪图富贵,也把黄龙袍披到他们身上,他们纵想不叛变也不可能。”这使赵匡胤如梦初醒。就在夺取帝位的明年(九六一),他召集石守信等最亲密的一批将领宴会,酒兴正浓时,赵匡胤叹息说:“如果不靠各位的推戴,我不会有今天。但当皇帝也太艰难,并没有当节度使时快乐。每天都忧心忡忡,不能安枕。”大家问他什么缘故,赵匡胤说:“事情很明显,这把椅子,谁不想坐?”大家骇然说:“陛下怎么说这样的话,现在天命已定,谁还敢怀这种非分之望。”赵匡胤说:“你们当然不会,可是一旦你们被部下拥戴,你们怎么有力量拒绝?”大家这时候才忽然发觉杀机四伏,不由魂飞天外,请求指示一条生路。赵匡胤是一个政治人才,他不会用屠杀手段,他说:“人生有限,转眼老死。拼命上进,追求富贵,目的是什么?不过升官发财自己既可享受,儿女们也不贫乏,如此而已。依我之见,各位不妨辞去军职,改任高级文官,多多购买肥沃田地,营建豪华住宅,搜罗天下歌童舞女,昼夜饮酒取乐。我跟你们约定,世代通婚。君臣之间,两不猜忌,上下相安,各位以为如何。”赵匡胤的话掌握了人类低级情操上的全部弱点,大家感激接受。明天,纷纷上奏章说有病在身,请求解除军职。

这是中国历史上有名的“杯酒释兵权”故事,是一种最高的政治艺术的运用。一席酒宴解决了不断兵变和不断改朝换代的祸根。

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skylee

And this is the story of "莫須有", again from 中國人史綱.

赵构下令撤退,并在一天之内,连续颁发十二道命令,每道命令都用“金字牌”送达(金字牌送达的命令,驿马每天飞奔二百公里),用以造成严重压力,使岳飞不能反抗。岳飞在接到第十二个金字牌时,他不能不退,否则就是叛变。他向拦在马前恳求不要撤退的民众垂泪说:“十年准备反攻,呕尽心血。而今一天之内,化为乌有。”

赵构把所有将领召集到首都临安(浙江杭州),论功行赏,擢升韩世忠当国防部长(枢密使),岳飞当国防部副部长(枢密副使),乘着这机会,一律解除他们的军权。但岳飞不知道赵构的隐情,强烈的爱国心,使他反对和解。金帝国不得不暗示说,如果赵构没有能力整顿内部,金帝国就把赵桓放回来,由赵桓整顿。赵沟遂决心铲除岳飞,命秦桧诬陷岳飞谋反,逮捕岳飞下狱。韩世忠向秦桧质问岳飞是不是真的谋反时,秦桧回答说:“莫须有。”韩世忠叹息:“莫须有三个字,怎么能服天下人心?”赵构大概也知道如果把岳飞公开绑赴刑场斩首,可能激起事变,于是岳飞遂被秘密处死,同死的还有他的儿子和他的几位忠心部将。

—— “莫须有”是一个不合文法的句子,无法解释。秦桧是江宁(江苏南京)人,或许是当时江宁方言。根据情况推测,应是“不见得没有”之意。从此,“莫须有”三字在中国就成为“诬陷”和“冤狱”的代名词。

...

岳飞死时只三十九岁,这是中国历史上最悲痛的冤狱之一。专制政体下,人们不敢公开指责主凶赵构,只好把罪恶全部推给帮凶秦桧。后来人们就在杭州西湖,为岳飞修筑一座坟墓,墓前跪着用生铁铸成的四个塑像:秦桧、秦桧的妻子王氏和担任审判法官的万俟高、张俊。这四个铁像,一直到二十世纪,仍跪在那里。游客们每每故意地便溺到他们头上,或锤击敲打,以泄心中愤怒,以致那些铁像必须不断重铸,才能承当。

I have always thought that 莫須有 means that "(reasons) are not required". But "there doesn't seem to be none" also makes sense.

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bhchao

Here is another one:

In the Han dynasty there was an official named Han Anguo. Despite great achievements he was imprisoned for an offense. The prison warden Tian Jia treated him harshly. Han Anguo warned him, "Is it not possible for dying embers to glow again?" Tian Jia replied, "Even if someone rises back up to success, I will urinate on them and put them out again." Shortly afterwards, Han Anguo was released from prison and re-instated to higher office.

Tian Jia then fled in dread. Han Anguo threatened to execute his entire family if he did not return. So Tian Jia surrendered and begged for mercy. Han Anguo laughed and said to him, "Are you really worth my reprisal?" Han decided that taking revenge against such a coward was not worth it, and still treated him well afterwards.

Later, 死灰复燃 came to describe a person or cause that seems defeated, but later rises back up to become a formidable force in the future.

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skylee

怒髮衝冠 is the beginning of Yue Fei's famous poem 滿江紅, and can be used to describe rage.

Another similar (but not the same) idiom is 衝冠一怒為紅顏. Here is the story from the same source as above ->

吴三桂得到李自成即位的消息,决定投降。他父亲吴襄正好也派遣仆人到军前劝他入朝。但经过下列一段对话后,吴三桂的态度立刻转变。他问他父亲的情形,仆人说:“已被逮捕。”吴三桂说:“我到北京后,就会释放。”又问他的财产,仆人说:“已经没收。”吴三桂说:“我到北京后,就会发还。”又问他美丽的爱妾陈圆圆,仆人说:“已被宰相刘宗敏抢去了。”吴三桂火冒三丈,下令他的军队为死去的皇帝朱由检穿上白色丧服,誓言为朱由检报仇,在答覆他父亲的信上,慷慨激昂说:“父亲既不能当忠臣,儿子自不能当孝子。”他知道不能两面作战,于是,转过脸来,向昨天还是敌人的清帝国投降,请求清帝国派遣军队入关(山海关),联合剿匪。

——不久,诗人吴梅村写了一首史诗,名《圆圆曲》,描述这件事,其中有两句:“痛哭六军俱缟素,冲冠一怒为红颜。”家家传诵。吴三桂那时还在云南昆明,既不能用诬以谋反冤狱的手段于万里之外杀吴梅村,只好送黄金一千两给他,请求把两句删掉或予以修正,吴梅村拒绝接受。

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