指桑骂槐 Pointing at the mulberry tree but cursing the locust tree

As I said before, I will be writing more at my blog at Weebly. I am putting my blog here and my 163.com blog together into one and hope that both sets of my friends, Chinese and foreigners, can have more interactions. The reason I moved my blog to Weebly is that it is accessible in China, while WordPress was blocked, on and off. Needless to say. I do not like the idea of internet censorship. I wrote about it at Weebly. One of my friends shared my view and said that what the authorities doing was 自欺欺人 (cheating yourself and cheating others) and asked me to write about this idiom. Of course, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to annoy the authorities and get myself into trouble. I don’t want to move my blog once more time. The worst case scenario is that Weebly would end up like WordPress.

I know my fellow Chinese friend, like me, love our country, but some of us just do not agree with everything that it does and like to criticise it out of our love of the country. Learning from ancient Chinese wisdom, I think a good way to do so without getting into trouble is using one of the famous “smart ass strategies” dating back to 500 AD 指桑骂槐.  Learn more about this  by clicking the link below. For those want to learn about this Chinese idiom come visit me there too.


Google is “covering one’s ears to steal a bell 掩耳盗铃”

On 24th of March I posted an article written by a Bloomberg correspondent entitled “Google Faces No Hong Kong Censors After China Retreat”. It seems that Google has upheld its stance on internet freedom. The fact is that Google only passes the ball to China’s court. It is now the China authorities who are doing the censorship. It is confirmed that China has screened Google’s contents and blocked those topics which they do not like. The Chinese netizens (net users) still do not have access to such sensitive topics on Tiananmen Massacre, Tibet,, Dalai Lama, Falun Gong etc. I am a big Google fan and I am all for Google’s intent and purpose. However,  I have reservation the way they handle the matter.  What Google doing is akin to an ancient Chinese metaphor, 掩耳盗铃. More on this below.

The metaphor

掩耳盗铃 (yan er dao ling) literally means “covering one’s ears to steal a bell” in English or “Taperse los oídos al robar una campanilla” in Spanish. It actually means “deceiving oneself” or “engañarse a sí mismo“. It has similar meaning to “bury one’s head in the sand” or “esconder la cabeza debajo del ala

The origin of the metaphor can be traced back to the ancient China’s Spring and Autumn Period (476BC to 770BC). History had it that a thief at the time tried to steal a big and heavy copper bell from a house. He could not move it so he had to break it into pieces. The thief found a big hammer and tried to do so. He realized that it would produce a very loud noise and would draw others’ attention.  To avoid that he stuck some fabrics into his ears. He thought others, like him, could not hear it when he hit the bell with the hammer. Needless to say that was not the case and he got caught.

Do you agree what Google doing is 掩耳盗铃? Please take a vote:

A frog in the well 井底之蛙


There was a frog that lived in a shallow well.

” Look how well off I am here ! ” he told a big turtle from the Eastern Ocean. ” I  am master of the water and lord of this shallow well, What more can  a fellow ask for? Why do I want to leave the well ? “

It was only until the turtle took the frog outside of the well  (or told the frog what were outside) that the frog realized how big the world was.


It means a person who cannot see  the world or things in big picture


  • A son who was born and raised in a small place like Hong Kong told his father  “I do not want to be a frog in the well. I want go t o a university in the United States to further my studies and see what life is like outside Hong Kong.”
  • A member of  Italki or LiveMocha wrote in his profile “I do not want to me a frog in the well. I am learning Chinese so that I get to know more about the Chinese culture and the people of China”.
  • A New Yorker laughed at a man from a small town “You are a frog in a well. You don’t know how big New York is.”
  • A teacher told his students “You must study hard and read more otherwise you will be a frog in the well.”
  • A person thought the bank of his country was the biggest bank in the world. He was told “You are a frog in the well. Don’t you know that the three largest banks  in the world by capitalization are Chinese banks”.

Calling a deer a horse 指鹿为马

It is an example of a borrowed metaphor, which uses objects, in this case a deer and a horse, to convey a subtle message. It is also an example of an insinuating metaphor, in that it insinuates a person uses his authorities or powers to dominate or control another person.


指鹿为马 (zhí lù wéi má)  literally means pointing at a deer, but calling it a horse

This proverb was originated from Records of the Grand Historian (史记) written by Sima Qian of the Qin Dynasty in around 100 BC. History has it that during the reign of the Emperor Qin the second, there was a head of the executive bureau (丞相) named  Zhao Gao (赵高), who was one ambitious man and had always wanted to be an emperor. However, he was unsure as to, among his subordinates, who were on his side and who were not. Zhao came up with a scheme. One day at the the Emperor’s palace, Zhao brought out a deer before his subordinates and said to the Emperor “Here is a horse for your highness!”. The Emperor laughed and said to Zhao that “You must be wrong, it is a deer”. Zhao ignored the Emperor and demanded that each of his subordinates to say whether it was a horse or a deer. Some said it was a deer, but some tried not to offend Zhao and chose to say that it was a horse.  Later those who told the truth by saying it was a deer were killed by Zhao.


To give a misleading representation for a personal gain


  • In politics (President Bush asked its “allies” to send troops to Iraq alleging that it possessed weapons of mass destruct ion, only Britain and a handful of countries did, whereas France, Germany and other usual “allies” of the US did not. Bush was in effect calling a deer a horse and now he knew who are his allies.)

Pointing the mulberry tree cursing the locust tree 指桑骂槐

It is another example of a borrowed metaphor, which uses an object to convey a subtle message. It is similar to the proverb “spitting sand at the shadow 含沙射影” of yesterday’s blog.


指桑骂槐 (zhǐ sāng mà huái) literally means pointing at the mulberry tree but cursing the locust tree.

It is the 26th stratagems of the famous 36 strategems  (三十六計), which I would call “36 smart ass strategies”. These strategies are not intended for military or commercial uses, but for unorthodox uses or for deceiving others.   

it is a very straight forward proverb, which can be summarised as some one pointed at and criticised a mulberry tree, but as a matter of fact he was criticising a locust tree. Or in actual situation, you are scolding person A but in fact you are scolding person B. 

It is applicable when a person intends to criticize another person more senior than him or to whom he has a special relation to name yet antoher person as the subject in order to avoid direct confrontation or retaliation.


innuendo, insinuation,


  • in politics (Chávez called ex Spanish Prime Minister, José María Aznar, a fascist at the 2007 Ibero America Summit, but the comments were intended for Spanish Prime Minister Zaptero )
  • in family affars (a mother- in-law critises a friend’s daughter-in-law in front of her daughter-in-law)

Splitting sand at the shadow 含沙射影

Looking at the above title, it sounds more like a title of a kung fu movie than a Chinese proverb. One of the beauties of the Chinese language is the extensive and frequent uses of metaphors. The above proverb is one of the examples of a borrowed metaphor, which is the use of on object to convey a subtle message.  You may be at a complete loss if you come across this proverb for the first time unless you know the background thereof, which goes as below.


含沙射影 (hán shā shè yǐng) literally means holding sand in the mouth and shooting at the shadow

The proverb could be traced back to a poem written by the renowned Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi 白居易, the content of which in Chinese is 含沙射影,虽病人不知,巧言构人罪,至死人不疑 and the English translation is “concocted evidence is like spitting sand at the shadow, which could cause death to the victim without him knowing it“.

How would someone holding sand in the month and could kill another person by spitting it onto his shadow? Isn’t it interesting? Legend has it that in 朝 (Jin Dynasty), there were certain lake monsters called 蜮 (yu) which caused death to the victim by spitting sand from their mouths. Most amazing of all was that even the shadow of a person which got spitted on by them could die too.


innuendo, insinuations.


  • smearing campaigns in politics (1. showing Obama in a Kenya tribal garb insinuating that he was a Muslim 2. Chavez praised Chomsky’s book in an UN speech insinuating that Americans were devils)
  • smearing campaigns in advertising

Chinese metaphors can mean life or death

 A italki friend raised an interesting question on “whether there are metaphors in Chinese?”. Chinese not only have metaphors and as a matter of fact they play an important part of the Chinese language. Chinese are known for their subtleties especially when it comes to criticism of their superiors. Nowadays if you criticize your boss, the worst comes to the worst is that it costs you your job. However, in the old days, if a subordinate critised his emperor and it were not to his likings, which were often the case, it could cause his life.

The best  example that metaphors saved one’s life is the Han dynasty’s poem,  Seven Step Verse 七步诗, which I have discussed at this blog previously. In that poem Cao Zhi was ordered by his elder brother, emperor Cao Pi, to produce a poem within seven strides to prove that he had no intention to usurp his rule, otherwise, he were to be beheaded. Cao Zhi did so.  Cao Zhi used beans and beanstalks as metaphors and asked his brother why one part of a plant was used to burn the other of the same plant. The illustration was obvious. Cao Pi was said to be so flustered with emotion that he spared his brother’s life. History might have been re-written if Cao Zhi criticised his brother directly, even if he could come up with the poem in seven strides. I tend to think of this situation was like Cao Zhi cracking up a joke at the heat of the moment. In life, the right kind of joke at the right moment would save a job, a marriage, a deal and the likes. The opposite can be true too.

Metaphors of the type used in the above poem are very common in Chinese proverbs (成语 chéngyǔ). For the purpose of discussion I will call such metaphors as “borrowed metaphor” (借喻 jièyù), which is defined as a metaphor which uses a borrowed object to convey a subtle message. There are upteem numver of examples of such metaphors, which I will discuss at this blog from time to time. For this purpose, I will start a blog entitled “Know your Chinese Metaphors