Chinese Idioms (I): To dot the eyes of the painted dragon…

A first class of Chinese Idioms: Reading is always beneficial // To dot the eyes of the painted dragon (to add the finishing touch) // High mountains and flowing water // A broken mirror re-joined together

Chinese Idioms. Illustration by Xie Hai
Illustration by Xie Hai


Reading is always beneficial

Having unified the nation, Emperor Taizong (AD 939-997) of the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) collected and collated cultural information and consolidated ancient books in order to promote traditional culture. The Emperor ordered the compilation of a massive classified encyclopaedia—The Taiping Encyclopaedia, of which he attached great importance to a section named The Taiping Overview. Once it was completed, he himself made it a rule to read at least two to three volumes of the encyclopaedia every day, with the aim of reading it all within a year. The name of the encyclopaedia was thus changed to the Imperial Readings of the Taiping Era, referring to the fact that it had been read by the Emperor.

However, busy with administrative affairs, Emperor Taizong frequently did not have time to read the encyclopaedia as planned. Therefore, he would make up for the missed reading whenever he had spare time. For the sake of his Majesty’s health, his ministers tried to dissuade him from reading for too long. The Emperor, however, replied, “Reading is always beneficial, and I do not feel tired at all.” Deeply touched by such a diligent emperor, the ministers followed his example and thus a culture conducive to learning was formed. The idiom “Reading is always beneficial” (Kāi Juàn You Yì) has been used by later generations to encourage people to read diligently.

Chinese Idioms: Illustration by Li Naizhou
Illustration by Li Naizhou


To dot the eyes of the painted dragon (to add the finishing touch)

A painter of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (AD 420-589) called Zhang Sengyou was adept at drawing dragons. Once in Jinling (present-day Nanjing), he drew four dragons without eyes on the wall of An Le Monastery. “Why didn’t you draw the eyes?” someone asked. “If the dragons had eyes,” replied Zhang, “they would fly away.” People thought it absurd and teased him. Thereupon, he dotted the eyes for two of the dragons. All of a sudden, there was lightning and thunder, and the two dragons with eyes burst through the wall and flew up into the sky. Yet the other two dragons without eyes remained still on the wall.

The idiom “dotting the eyes of the painted dragon” has been used metaphorically by later generations to mean: When speaking or writing, it is imperative to be clear at crucial points, to make the details more vivid and lively. The idiom is also a metaphor for making the main point standout.

Chinese Idioms. Illustration by Liu Bo
Illustration by Liu Bo


High mountains and flowing water

Sometime during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), a musician called Yu Boya was playing his qin (a seven-stringed plucked instrument) in the mountains, when a woodcutter called Zhong Ziqi walked by. While playing his qin, Yu Boya thought of high mountains and broad seas, and Zhong said, the music conjured up images of towering mountains and vast flowing waters. Yu Boya was amazed by how Zhong related to his music and regarded him as a bosom friend. They agreed to meet again to listen to Yu’s music, but sadly Zhong passed away before they could meet. Yu was overwhelmed with grief and broke the strings of his qin, he sighed and vowed never to play the music again. Since then, the idiom of “high mountains and flowing water” has been used to describe sublime melodies, but is more commonly used to describe a friendship with mutual affinity.

Chinese Idioms. Illustration by Hu Yongkai
Illustration by Hu Yongkai


A broken mirror re-joined together

During the Southern Dynasty, there lived a beautiful and intelligent princess named Lechang in the capital of the state of Chen (present-day Nanjing). She and her husband, Xu Deyan, loved each other very much. At that time, the country was on the verge of being invaded by the Sui Empire (AD 581-618). The couple broke a bronze mirror in half, each of them keeping a half as a token of their love. They agreed that if they were separated, the Princess would go to the marketplace on the 15th day of the first lunar month of every year to advertise her half of the mirror for sale and if Xu was still alive, he would go to meet her with the other half of the mirror. Soon after, Yang Jian (AD 541-604, the first emperor of the Sui Dynasty) and his troops occupied the state of Chen and gave Princess Lechang away to Yang Su, a Sui minister, in recognition of his service in attacking Chen. After which, Princess Lechang lived in Daxing (present-day Xi’an) as Yang Su’s concubine. Xu Deyan, who was in exile, embarked on a long and arduous journey to find his wife. In the end, he met an old woman selling a broken mirror and recognized it immediately, learning that the woman had been entrusted by his wife. The two halves of the mirror were re-joined, but the couple remained apart and the Princess sobbed every day as she missed her husband so much. After learning about their story, Yang Su was so moved that he allowed Princess Lechang to be reunited with her husband and helped them return to their homeland. This idiom has been used by later generations to refer to the reunion of a couple after a separation or breaking up.


Images and texts contributed by Wangfujing Avenue Public Art – Window of Golden Street 900 Chinese Idioms by Shao Qiang


Published in Confucius Institute Magazine.
Number 32. Volume III. May 2014.


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