Tuesday, October 19, 2010

刻舟求剑 Kè Zhōu Qiú Jiàn

In Chinese, there are many expressions to describe people who have got themselves into a rut, and who insist on strictly adhering to a precedent, even when it has been rendered obsolete by a change in circumstances.

One of the most vivid of these idioms is Kè Zhou Qiú Jiàn, literally meaning “to mark the boat to try to find the lost sword,” with “Zhou” being an old word for boat and “Jian” translating as “sword.”

The story behind this idiom, “Ke Zhou Qiu Jian,” is popular even among children who have just started their schooling, so we hope it’s popular with you too.

SHANSHAN: A man from the ancient State of Chu was carrying a sword while crossing a river on a ferryboat. When the ferry got to the middle of the river, the man was so intoxicated by the scenery that he forgot to take care of his much treasured sword, and with a slip of the hand, it dropped into the river. (the splash of water) He quickly took out a knife from his pocket and cut a mark on the gunwale of the boat.

“This is where my sword slipped overboard,” he murmured to himself, before stepping aside, much relieved.
The ferry sailed on and soon arrived at the dock on the opposite bank. As soon as the boat has anchored, the man jumped into the river at the point where he had made his mark.

“What is he doing?” His strange behavior puzzled his fellow passengers.

The man soon emerged from the water, commenting, “Strange. The sword dropped at the exact point where I marked the boat, so how come can’t I find it?”

Of course he failed to find his sword — The boat had moved far away from the point where he had originally dropped his sword.

From that fable comes the idiom Kè Zhou Qiú Jiàn.

The term is used to mock those who are sticklers for adhering to old models.

Things are constantly moving on, just like the boat in the story. Anyone who rigidly sticks to the old way of doing things may end up behaving as foolishly as the man who Kè Zhou Qiú Jiàn.

It also reminds me of a fashionable phrase that has quite the opposite meaning to "Ke Zhou Qiu Jian". The phrase is "Keep up with the times", a phrase which anybody living in fast-changing Beijing would do well to heed.

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