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Chinese historical idioms


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

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




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



—— “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。



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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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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  • 2 weeks later...

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 ->



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