Idiom 1
一 心 一 德 With one heart and one purpose
Idiom 2
一 字 千 金 Each word worthy of a thousand gold pieces   
Idiom 3
月 下 老 人 The Old Man Under the Moon
Idiom 4
門 庭 若 市 A forecourt as busy as a market place
Idiom 5
一 鳴 驚 人 Once it caws, it shall be stunning
Idiom 6
紙 上 談 兵 Military strategy on paper (Armchair  genership)
Idiom 7
班 門 弄 斧 Showing off axe-manship in front of Ban
Idiom 8
一 箭 雙 雕 Shooting two buzzards with one arrow
Idiom 9
天 涯 海 角 At world’s end
Idiom 10
世外桃源  Utopia in this world

Idiom 1 - 一 心 一 德 With one heart and one purpose

The Shang 商 Dynasty was founded by Tong 湯 c. 1600 BC and when it passed to King Zhou
紂 王, (c.1078-1045 BC) it developed into a notorious tyranny. Its subjects were severely
exploited and they lived under oppression. Zhou 紂 only lived in his world of hunting, drinking
and women  and even invented ways of torturing people as a form of entertainment. The
torture of roasting people alive by tying them to a circular copper pillar with burning charcoal
below was invented by him. (炮 烙 刑 )

His tyrannical rule had caused great opposition among his people and among the
neighbouring states. Zhou Wu Wang 周 武 王 allied with eight smaller states and led an army
across Huang He 黃 河 to attack the capital of Shang at Chao Ge 朝 歌 (present day He Nan
河 南). At Meng Jin 孟 津 the gathered army held a massive march off ceremony and the
manifesto given by Zhou Wu Wang under oath was known as Qin Shi 秦 誓. It contained the
following words: “ 一 心 一 德, 立 定 厥 功, 惟 克 永 世 。It meant “ Let all of us with one heart
and one purpose, determine to conquer our enemy and the people of the world shall live in
peace thereafter.”

The Shang army composed of slaves and prisoners of war, defected and the battle was lost
by Zhou Wang as soon as it was joined. He returned to his palace, set it on fire and died
within. That was the end of the Shang Dynasty and the beginning of another new era in
China, Zhou 周 which would last for over eight centuries before unity was broken and
China would plunge again into the confusion of the Warring States.

Idiom 2 - 一 字 千 金 Each word worthy of a thousand gold pieces

After Qin Shi Huang 秦 始 皇 (Ying Zheng 嬴 政) conquered the other six states and
united China in 221 BC, he established the Qin Empire 秦 朝 with its capital at Xian
Yang 咸 陽. When Ying Zheng’s father Zhi Zho 子 楚 was a young prince, he was sent
to the state of Zhou 趙 as a nominated hostage. There he met Lu Bu Wei 呂 不 韋
(290 ?-235BC) who offered to be his mentor and  financed his return to Qin and was
instrumental to the plot of making him the crown prince and the king of Qin, Zhuang
Xiang Wang (秦 莊 襄 王) eventually.  

On the crowning of Zhuang Xiang Wang  莊 襄 王as king, Lu呂was appointed the prime
minister of Qin and headed the administration of the government. Lu recruited to his
household three thousand guests who acted as advisors and a think-tank. They were
given a free-hand to do what they were best at and they recorded in writing the results
of their studies and findings.

In order to establish his eminence as a prime minister and his scholastic achievement,
he commissioned the writing of a book entitled “Lu Shi Chun Qiu” (Lu’s Annual) 呂 氏
春 秋. It was both a historical record of the day and a collection of all knowledge worthy
of record, including agriculture, geology, civil construction, military thesis, various
schools of philosophy and political administration.  In fact it was a first encyclopedia of
China and of the world. (The first known encyclopedia of the Western world was
compiled about 2000 years later by the French lexicographer and philosopher Diderot
in the 1760’s.)

Having completed this work, Lu was highly complacent. He ordered a copy of the
manuscript to be posted on the city wall of the capital for public exhibition. A formal
notice accompanied the public exhibition, saying: “ Whoever can discover an error in
the manuscript, or suggest the deletion or addition of one character in the text shall be
rewarded with a thousand gold coins.” This became the origin of the idiom 一 字 千 金,
which serves as a compliment for literary work of the highest standard.

Idiom 3 - 月 下 老 人 The Old Man Under the Moon

In Tang Dynasty 唐 朝, there was a scholar by the name Wei Gu 韋 固. One year, he
was studying in Qing He 清 河 County and stayed at an inn. A friend suggested that he
would introduce him to the daughter of the ex-deputy prefect of the Qing He County and
made an appointment with him to be at the forecourt of Lung Men Temple 龍 門 寺 at
daybreak next morning.

Wei was very anxious and woke up before daybreak. He arrived at Lung Men Temple
under moon light and was quite surprised to find an old man sitting on the steps in front
of the temple turning the leaves of a book. Wei was curious. He approached the old man
and asked, “Elderly gentleman, what is it that you are reading so early in the morning?”

The old man replied, “This is no ordinary book. This is the marriage record of all the
people in the world.”

Then Wei asked about the bag that the old man placed beside himself. He replied, “the
bag contained red strings to tie up the feet of future couples as soon as they are born.
Your feet have been tied, why take all the trouble to seek your match.”

Wei said, “Then according to you, where is my wife and what does her family do for a

The old man replied, “ She is the daughter of an elderly woman by the name Chen
selling vegetables next to your inn.”

Wei paid no heed to this strange talk and waited by the temple for the daughter of that

At daybreak, people started passing by. At that time, an elderly woman carrying some
vegetables with a pole came along. She was blind in one eye and was limping in one
leg. She also carried a little girl.

The old man pointing at the elderly woman, said to Wei, “The child she is carrying in
her bosom is your wife.”

Wei was displeased. He retorted back, “ You are full of nonsense. How would I marry
her child? The child is too young anyway.”

The old man smiled and soon he disappeared. Wei waited for his prospective wife to
arrive until noon but she never came.

Fourteen years on, Wei completed his studies and was appointed a high ranking official.
He married and his bride who was only seventeen.
After marriage, he found out something he could not believe, despite her background
from a gentleman’s family. She told him that when she was young, she was at one time
raised by a woman selling vegetables by the name Chen. She was half blind and had a
limping leg.

Hearing that story, Wei recalled the incident in front of Lung Men Temple and believed
that the old man under the moon really spoke the truth.

Idiom 4 - 門 庭 若 市 A forecourt as busy as a market place

During the Warring States era 戰 國 時 期 , there was in the State of Qi 齊 國 a chief
minister by the name of Zou Ji 鄒 忌. He had a friend who was indisputably the most
handsome man in the city at the time called Xu Gong 徐 公 .

One day Zou asked his wife, “As compared with city north’s Xu Gong, who is more
handsome, he or I?” His wife replied, “Of course it is you, how can Xu Gong compare
with you!”

Zou asked the same question of his concubine and she answered, “ Definitely you are
more handsome than he.” Zou was pleased.

The next day a guest came to his house and Zou asked, “ Compare me with Xu Gong,
who is more handsome?” The guest answered, “ Xu Gong is not as good as you.” Zou
was completely convinced.

After a while, it happened that Xu Gong came to visit him. Zou carefully observed him
and realized that he was no match with Xu Gong. Then he realized the truth: “ My wife
said I am more handsome because she loves me with prejudice. My concubine said I am
more handsome because she fears me. My guest said I am more handsome because he
had something to ask of me.”

The next day, when Zou was in Court, he told his incident at home to the King of Qi
齊 王 together with his conclusion: “ Qi has a thousand miles of land. None of your
consorts and concubines are not without prejudice in loving you. None of the ministers
in court are not without fear towards you. All Qi’s people and neighbouring states are
wanting something from you. From these, it seems that you are much more shielded
fromthe truth than I.”

King of Qi was greatly impressed by what he heard. He instantly passed a  decree:
“ Anyone who can tell me my faults and shortcomings in my presence, he deserves a
top prize. Anyone who can persuade me in writing, he’ll get a medium prize. Anyone
who can criticize my faults in front of friends and subsequently heard by me shall get a
low prize.”

After the decree was issued, all sorts of ideas and comments regarding the
administration of the country came from the people of Qi and the reception of the
imperial court’s office was as busy as a market place. Because of this unstoppable
channel of ideas, Qi became a much more stronger state among its neighbours.

Idiom 5 - 一 鳴 驚 人 Once it caws, it shall be stunning

During the Warring States Era 戰 國 時 期 (720-256 BC) The King of Qi, Qi Wei
Wang 齊 威 王 became king when he was rarely 30 years old. For three years he
spent his days inside the palace, drinking and having entertainment without any
intention to manage his country. The administration was in a mess.

Neighbouring states knew what was happening; and Han, Zhao and Wei all
encroached onto the lands of Qi bordering their states and Qi Wei Wang seemed to
pay no attention to this state of affairs. The ministers were all concerned but none of
them were bold enough to come forward to criticize the king’s manners.

One minister by the name of Chun Yu Kun 淳 于 髡 was an adept in talking in
riddles. He knew the king loved riddles and one day came to palace and have an
audience with the king. He said, “ In our state there is  huge bird, perching inside the
palace for three

years. Yet it has not flown once or even made one caw. Do you know the name of
this bird?”Qi Wei Wang knew that this riddle is an insinuation of him. He smiled and
replied, “ This is not an ordinary bird. It hasn’t flown once but once it flies, it will reach
the sky 不 飛 則 己, 一 飛 沖 天. It hasn’t cawed once, but once it caws, the people of
the world will be stunned .”不 鳴 則 已, 一 鳴 驚 人。

From then on the king seemed another person. He left the company of women and
wine and started earnestly dealing with matters in the administration of the country. He
called up all the country’s 72 county magistrates and gave them rewards and reprimands
as appropriate. A series of programmes were launched to increase the production of the
country. The army was reorganized and much improved. In no time, the state became
orderly and prosperous. In his reign of 37 years, Qi remained a powerful country.

Idiom 6 - 紙 上 談 兵 Military strategy on paper (Armchair generalship)

During the Warring States Era 戰 國 時 期 there was a famous general in the State of
Zhao 趙 國 called Zhao She 趙 奢. He had a son Zhao Kuo 趙 括 who learned military
principles since very young and was able to discuss military strategies and affairs in

But his father, General Zhao was worried and he told his wife, “Conducting a war is
never as simple as what our son says. He only knows how to do it on paper. If he leads
the army to do battle, our country will be in grave danger.”

A few years General Zhao died. Qin 秦 國 sent a large army to attack Zhao 趙 國. The
General of Zhou was Lian Po 廉 頗 who was advanced in age but a military man of
great experience. He saw the strength of the Qin army and adopted a tactic of defence.
He avoided direct confrontation and was stalling for time. He used a strategy of attrition.
Knowing that the Qin army was an expedition army and had great difficulties of supply
because of its distance from their base and by the passage of time, this would be a key
problem for the intruders. As expected by Lian, the two sides ran into a stalemate as
time dragged on and the Qin army had no advantage.

The Qin General Bai Qi 白 起 saw the situation and realized that the only way to win the
war is by espionage. He caused rumours to be circulated in Zhao to the effect that:
“ Lian Po is too old and the Qin army has no fear of him. If the Zhao army had replaced
its general and Zhao Kuo 趙 括 taken over, they would have already won the war.”

The king of Zhou, Xiao Zheng Wang 孝 成 王 heard the rumour and believed in it. He
recalled Lian Po and sent Zhou Kuo 趙 括 to replace him. Zhou’s mother heard the
appointment and remembered what her husband had said before. She pleaded with the
king asking him to cancel the appointment but to no avail. She finally asked the king to
remember what she had pleaded and if her son failed in his duties, no punishment
should be applied to his family members. The king acknowledged.

When Zhou arrived the frontline, he changed the tactics of Lian Po 廉 頗 and his main
army was besieged by the Qin soldiers without further provision support. When water
and food was running out, the Zhou army attempted a break-through which failed and
Zhou Kou died in the battle. The Zhou army of four hundred thousand strong was
entirely vanquished. The Qin army reached as far as the capital of Zhou, Han Dan
邯 鄲 which was only relieved by the joint armies of the states of Chu 楚 and Wei 魏.

Hereafter, the idiom applies generally to situations where a plan is not practical and
has no reference to the particular circumstances, we would say that it is 紙 上 談 兵
and failure is going to be expected.

Idiom 7 - 班 門 弄 斧 Showing off axe-manship in front of Ban

The most celebrated poet in the Tang Dynasty was Li Bai 李 白 and he was honoured
as “Poet Sage”. The story goes that one day he was well drunk with friends on a boat
touring near Cai Shi Ji 釆 石 磯. He saw a clear moon floating in the river and tried to
retrieve it. In the act he fell into the river and was drown. His friends buried him near the
place and in order to commemorate him, the place had become a tourists’ spot, with
buildings such as Fairy’s Tower 謫 仙 樓 and Moon Fetching Pavilion 捉 月 亭.

For centuries after, poets all over China who came to visit the tomb of Li Bai to pay him
homage tended to leave their poetry there on anything they could write on, making a
mess with their graffiti of mediocre talents.

When it came to Ming Dynasty 明 朝, a poet named Mei Zhi Huan 梅 之 煥 came along
and was utterly appalled by the state of affairs and he too left a poem as follows:

釆 石 江 邊 一 堆 土 , 李 白 之 名 高 千 古;
來 來 往 往 一 首 詩 , 魯 班 門 前 弄 大 斧。

Which can be translated as:

Next to Cai Shi River laid a man,
Li Bai, a name for eternity will stand.
Idle poets making graffiti came and went,
Waving their axes in front of Lu Ban.

(Note: Lu Ban 魯 班 is Kungsun Ban 公 孫 班 of the state of Lu 魯 國. He was famous
for his engineering work and craftsmanship in carpentry. So, waving axes in front of
him was an arrogant way of demonstrating one’s talent in axe-manship.)

Thereafter, 班 門 弄 斧  became an idiom to describe people boasting their talents
impenitently in front of experts in their field without realizing their own ignorance and

Idiom 8 - 一 箭 雙 雕 Shooting two buzzards with one arrow

In the North-South Dynasties Era 南 北 朝, there was in the state of Bei Zhou 北 周 a
famous general called Zhangsun Cheng 長 孫 晟 . He was an adept in archery and the
best in the whole of northern China.

There was a tribe to the north-west of China called Tu Jue 突 厥. Its leader was She
Tu 攝 圖. He suggested that for the purpose of keeping peace between the two
countries, he would ask for the hand of a Chinese princess. Huan Di 宣 帝 of Bei
Zhou acceded to his request and ordered a princess to marry him. Zhangsun Cheng
was assigned as the commander of the escort party for the marriage.

She Tu was delighted to receive the princess’ party and greatly impressed by the
spirited air of Zhangsun Cheng. He asked him to stay longer in Tu Jue. On one
occasion when the two men were leading a hunting party into the wilderness, they saw
two large buzzards in the air tussling fiercely for a prey in their beaks.  

She Tu pointing at the buzzards said to Zhangsun Cheng, “ I heard you are the best
known archer in the whole of Bei Zhou. I really want to learn something today. Can you
down those buzzards for me?” While speaking, She Tu handed Cheng two arrows.

Zhangsun Cheng took one of them, saying, “One is enough.”
He urged his horse forward, chose a suitable angle and fired his arrow. It went straight
through both buzzards which plummeted to the ground.

She Tu was stunned and he exclaimed. “ I had no idea that there is such archery in
this world, one arrow downing two buzzards! Your name as the best archer is well-

The idiom 一 箭 雙 雕 is now used to describe an action which will achieve two
objectives at the same time.

Idiom 9 - 天 涯 海 角 At world’s end

Han Yu 韓 愈 was a famous scholar in the mid-Tang dynasty 唐朝中期. He became an
orphan at the age of three and lived under the roof of his brother and sister-in-law. His
brother Han Hui 韓 會 was without any children and they took into the family one
fostered child. This child was one year junior than Han Yu and because he ranked
12 in the list of siblings, therefore he was called 十 二 郎, the Twelve Lad.

When Han Yu was eleven, his elder brother Han Hui was demoted as the prefect of
Shaozhou 韶 州 剌 史 and he died of illness only a few months after taking that office.
Except Twelve Lad, Han Yu had no other close relatives. The boys were alone most
of the time and the only thing they had was each other. They shared the same food
by day and slept on the same bed by night. In this manner they lived like body and
shadow for eight years.

By the age of 19, Han Yu left his home village for the capital to take his national exams
and thereafter had no chance to meet Twelve Lad again but he was always in deep
memory of the days he spent with him.

Later when Han Yu was in his mid forties, he was prefect of Zhiaozhou 潮 州. He was
shocked when he heard, in a roundabout way, the news of the death of Twelve Lad,
survived by his wife and an infant son. In great sorrow, he wrote an elegy for Twelve
Lad known as 祭 十 二 郎 文. This piece became a famous classic, ranking undoubtedly
the first of its kind filled with emotion, compassion and sincerity. It is a passage that one
cannot read without tears flowing either in ones eyes or in ones soul.

It contained the following:
“..不 能 與 汝 相 養 以 生 , 相 守 以 死  。一 在 天 之 涯 ,  一 在 地 之 角 。 生 而 影 不
與 吾 形 相 依 , 死 而 魂 不 與 吾 夢 相 接 。”

An English translation cannot capture a fraction of its force of emotion but the following
is an attempt:
“ While living, I could not take care of your well-being;
When dead, I could not watch over your body.
One was at the end of Heaven,
The other, corner of the Earth.
Living, your shadow was not attached to me;
Dead, your soul did not come to meet my dreams.”

Thereafter, 天 涯 海 角 became a phrase used to describe the enormity of distance
separating persons with affection.

Idiom 10 - 世 外 桃 源  Utopia in this world

In Jin dynasty 晉 朝 a great scholar Tao Yuan Ming 陶 淵 明 has written an essay
entitled 桃 花 源 記 “The spring of peach blossom”. It described an extraordinary
incident encountered by a fisherman of Wu Ling 武 陵 in Hunan 湖 南. The story goes
like this.

One day a fisherman was rowing his little boat upstream. After a time which he could
not remember, he saw on a grassy bank, a huge bush of peach trees with blossoms.
He was quite amazed at the beauty of the scenery. He continued rowing and came to
a small hill with a little cave opening. Being curious, he alighted from his boat, climbed
into the cave and found that the entrance was dark and narrow. After scores of paces,
light began to appear on the far end and the cave widened. On getting out of the
cave, he suddenly saw an extensive meadow. There were fields everywhere and the
houses were orderly arranged, with mulberries and bamboos surrounding them. It
was peaceful and refreshingly green.

There were people working in the fields and children playing. It was the picture of a
lively, prosperous and happy community. When the village people saw the fisherman
wandering into their village, they were at first totally surprised. People gathered to
talk to him and through the conversation, it transpired that their ancestors were
Qin 秦 people and because of the hardships of war, the entire village retreated into
this secretive place.

When the fisherman told them that the Qin wars had ended centuries ago and after
Qin there was Han dynasty 漢 朝 and now Jin dynasty 晉 朝 . The villagers were
dumb-founded. They had not the slightest idea what had gone on in the outside world
for almost five hundred years.

The villagers eagerly entertained him in order to listen to his stories and everyday the
village elders each took him as guest in their houses. When the fisherman finally
wanted to take leave after many days, they gave him a very warm farewell. He was told,
however, not to mention the place to outsiders.

The fisherman retraced his footsteps, making marks wherever he could, found his
boat and hurriedly drifted downstream. On arriving home, he reported the strange
encounter to the prefect of the county. A team of people took the fisherman back to
where he left his boat but were unable to find the way again to this place.

Whenever we describe a place as 世 外 桃 源 we mean some place in this world,
which is tranquil, peaceful, free from war and troubles.
Chinese  Idioms
told by YK Kwan
Copyright © 2006
all rights reserved

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