Click on the Chinese to show the corresponding English translation. Click the Chinese again to hide the English. Here’s a cool Chrome extension that translates individual Chinese characters if you mouse over them.
A note on translation style: I try to stick as close to the literal meaning of the Chinese and try to reflect the underlying Chinese grammatical structures (ie compound sentences stay compound and dependent clauses stay dependent clauses) while making the English sound natural to native English speakers.
Marking a Boat to Retrieve a Sword
In the state of Chu there was a man who was traveling by boat across a river. his sword fell from the boat into the water. So this man hastily carved a mark into the boat’s side and said, “This is where my sword fell into the water.” Then he leisurely waited for the boat to reach shore. After the boat reached shore and stopped, he jumped into the water according to the carved mark looking for the sword, but he never found the sword.
idiomatic meaning: an action made pointless by changed circumstances
Cáo Chōng Weighs an Elephant
Cáo Chōng’s father Cáo Cāo was a senior government official. One time Sūn Quán sent him an elephant. He really wanted to know how much this elephant weighed so he told the officials under him to think of a way to weigh the elephant. But there was a problem. Elephants were the largest animals. How to weigh them then?
At that time there was no scale big enough, and people also didn’t have the strength to lift an elephant. The government officials all surrounded the elephant in worry. No one could think of a way to weigh the elephant. Just at this time, a child ran out, stood in front of the elephant, and said, “I have a way. I have a way!” The government officials saw he actually Cáo Cāo’s son Cáo Chōng, a five-, six-year-old child. He told them to lead the elephant and follow him to the river.
His father and those government officials all wanted to see just how he’d weigh it so they came to the river bank. It just so happens that there was a big, empty boat at the river bank. Cáo Chōng said, “Draw a mark on the boat’s side level with the water’s surface.” After the mark was drawn Cáo Chōng also told people to lead the elephant onto the shore. At this time the boat was empty and floated up a bit.
Next Cáo Chōng told people to carry over stones and put them in the boat. Bucket after bucket of stones were carried over, and the big boat slowly ank again. “Okay, okay!” Cáo Chōng saw the mark on the ship’s side was level with the water’s surface and told people to carry bucket after bucket of stones off the boat.
At this time, everyone understood. Loading the elephant and stones onto the boat until the boat sank to the same mark, it was clear that the stones and the elephant were the same weight. By weighing these stones and adding up all these stones’ weights, wasn’t the resulting sum the elephant’s weight? Everyone said Cáo Chōng was really smart!
The Guizhou Donkey’s Exhausted Skill
There were originally no donkeys in Guizhou province’s roads. Some people who liked to be meddlesome used a ship to transport a donkey into Guizhou. They didn’t have a use for the donkey after they transported him, so they put him at the bottom of a mountain.
A tiger met the donkey, saw it was actually a huge animal, and treated it as a mystical object. Thus, he hid in the forest secretly looking at him. The tiger gradualy walked near him being extremely cautious and timid not knowing what he was.
One day the donkey gave a long cry. The tiger was very scared and ran far away. He thought the donkey was going to bite him and was very frightened. However, the tiger watched him from time to time and thought it seemed the donkey didn’t have any special abilities. He became used to the donkey’s cries and once again approached him and walked around back and forth. But the tiger didn’t dare to fight the donkey. The tiger slowly approached the donkey, his attitude became more casual, he bumped the donkey, and offended him. The donkey was extremely angry and used his hoofs to kick the tiger. As a result, the tiger was actually happy. He calculated these things and thought to himself, “That’s all the donkey’s abilities!” Thus the tiger leapt out, howled loudly, bit off the donkey’s throat, and left only after eating his flesh.
Afterwards, everyone made this story of the donkey being eaten by a tiger in Guizhou the “Guizhou’s donkey’s skill” idiom, a metaphor for someone’s limited ability having been used up. It’s also called “the Guizhou donkey’s exhausted skill.”
Pulling Up Seedlings to Help Them
In the Song dynasty there was a farmer who planted rice seedlings and hoped to harvest them early. Everyday when he came to the rice paddy, he discovered that these rice seedlings grew extremely slowly. He felt impatient and thought to himself, “How can I cause the rice seedlings to grow tall and fast?” He thought and thought and finally thought of the best method which was to rake the rice seedlings up a bit. After going through a bout of labor, he satisfactorily carried his hoe home to rest. After that he returned home and told his family members, “Today tired me out. I helped the rice seedlings grow a big chunk!” His son quickly ran to the field to see. All the seedlings had withered.
Guarding a Tree Stump Waiting For Rabbits
In the Song dynasty there was a peasant in the process of plowing the field. There was a big tree stum on the side of the field. A rabbit darted across and accidentally hit the tree stump, snapped its neck, and died. This peasant unintentionally got a rabbit and was extremely happy. Since then he put down his farm tools and kept watch on the tree stump hopng to get a dead rabbit again. In the end, he never got another rabbit and his actions became a joke and spread throughout the Song state.
Zhuāng Zhōu Dreams of a Butterfly
Zhuāng Zhōu dreamt he became a butterfly. He was elated and completely relaxed and satisfied. At this time he completely forgot he was Zhuāng Zhōu. after a while he woke up and regarded his being Zhuāng Zhōu with complete wonder and doubt. he thought seriously for a bit and didin’t know whether Zhuāng Zhōu dream he was a butterfly or a buttefly dreamt it was Zhuāng Zhōu.
Meaning: this story is usually called “Zhuāng Zhōu Dreams of a Buttefly.” For most people, when a person is awake, everything he hears and feels is real while the dream is a fantasy. Zhuāng Zǐ nonetheless considers otherwise. Although being awake is a state, dreaming is another state; both a different. Zhuāng Zhōu is Zhuāng Zhōu. A buttefly is a butterfly. Both are also different. But Zhuāng Zhōu saw both as only a type of appearance, in truth a form in passing, a phase and nothing more.
Yú Gōng Moves Mountains
Tàiháng and Wángwū are two large mountains whose circumference reaches 700 Chinese miles and height reaches seven to eight thousand feet. They were originally situated in southern Jizhou north of the Yellow River.
In the Northern Mountains there was a man called Yú Gōng who was almost 90 years old and lived facing the mountain. Yú Gōng had a hard time from the north side of the mountain’s clogged road. Entering or exiting required winding through distant roads. As a result, Yú Gōng gathered his whole family for a discussion and said, “You and I will use all our strength to level these two mountains and create a road straight to southern Henan province that reaches the Han River’s southern shore, okay?” Everyone expressed their approving opinion one after another. Yú Gōng’s wife raised a question and said, “On the basis of your strength, not even Kuifu Mountain can be scraped flat. How are you going to level Tàiháng and Wángwū mountains? Besides, where will you put the dirt and rocks?” Everyone successively said, “Put the dirt and rocks on the bank of Bohai Sea.” Thus, Yú Gōng led the three among his children who could carry and chisel stones, excavate, and use baskets to carry stones to Bohai Sea’s banks. The widow of the neighbor with the surname of Jing had an orphan, just turned seven-, eight-years-old, who bounced along to help them. Winter and summer passed, and they only made one trip.
A wise man of Hequ county laughingly blocked Yú Gōng and said, “You really aren’t smart. With your remaining years and what’s left of your strength you can’t even destroy a blade of grass on the mountaintop. What can you do to soil and stones?” Yú Gōng of the Northern Mountain sighed and said, “Your thinking is stubborn. Stubborn to the condition of being unchangeable. You’re not even worth the widow and her puny child. Even if I die, my sons will still be here; my sons will bear grandsons, grandsons will bear great-grandchildren. One’s posterity doesn’t have an end, but the mountain won’t increase in height. Why do you worry it can’t be leveled? The wise man of Hequ didn’t have words for an answer.
The mountain spirit Wozhaoshe heard this matter and was afraid people wouldn’t stop digging so he reported this matter to the celestial emperor. The celestial emperor was moved by his sincerity and ordered Kuaeshi’s two sons to carry away the two mountains. One was put in eastern Shuo, one was put in southern Yong province. Since then, southern Hebei and the side north of the Han River didn’t have high mountains separating them.