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As you’re probably aware, most Chinese idioms are 4-character constructs that make little sense unless you know the story behind them. this one, 南辕北辙, means “to do something that acts against your own best interests”. The story behind this idiom talks about the follies of a man traveling the wrong direction on his way to the Kingdom of Chu, who refuses against all wisdom and advice to go the right way.

Character Breakdown

南 – nán – South
辕 – yuán – Shafts on a cart between which a draft animal is harnessed
北 – běi – North
辙 – zhé – Rut, wheel tracks

Interesting Vocabulary

盘缠 – pán chan – Traveling money
骏马 – jùn mǎ – Steed
不问青红皂白 – bù wèn qīng hóng zào bái – Doesn’t distinguish between right and wrong, or between obvious differences
满不在乎 – mǎn bù zài hu – Unconcernedly
阻止 – zǔ zhǐ – Prevent
醒悟 – xǐng wù – Come to realize
劝阻 – quàn zǔ – Dissuade
无奈 – wú nài – For lack of a better option
劝告 – quàn gào – Urge, exhort
一意孤行 – yī yì gù xíng – Obstinately stick to, dogmatic


从前有一个人,从魏国到楚国去。他带上很多的盘缠,雇了上好的车,驾上骏马,请了驾车技术精湛的车夫,就上路了。楚国在魏国的南面,可这个人不问青红皂白让驾车人赶着马车一直向北走去。

路上有人问他的车是要往哪儿去,他大声回答说: “去楚国!”路人告诉他说: “到楚国去应往南方走,你这是在往北走,方向不对。那人满不在乎地说:”没关系,我的马快着呢!” 路人替他着急,拉住他的马,阻止他说, “方向错了,你的马再快,也到不了楚国呀!” 那人依然毫不醒悟地说: “不要紧,我带的路费多着呢!” 路人极力劝阻他说:“虽说你路费多,可是你走的不是那个方向,你路费多也只能白花呀!” 那个一心只想着要到楚国去的人有些不耐烦地说: “这有什么难的,我的车夫赶车的本领高着呢!” 路人无奈,只好松开了拉住车把子的手,眼睁睁看着那个盲目上路的魏人走了。

那个魏国人,不听别人的指点劝告,仗着自己的马快、钱多、车夫好等优越条件,朝着相反方向一意孤行。那么,他条件越好,他就只会离要去的地方越远,因为他的大方向错了。

这个故事告诉我们,无论做什么事,都要首先看准方向,才能发充分挥自己的有利条件;如果方向错了,那么有利条件只会起到相反的作用。

SHOW ENGLISH TRANSLATION »

Long ago, there was a man traveling from the Kingdom of Wei to the Kingdom of Chu. He took a lot of traveling money with him, hired a good carriage, harnessed it to a strong steed, hired an exquisitely skilled driver, and then began his journey. The Kingdom of Chu was to the south of the Kingdom of Wei, but this man couldn’t tell the difference when the driver rode away towards the north.

On the road, a passing traveler asked where they were going. The man loudly answered, “We’re going to the Kindom of Chu!”. The traveler told him, “If you’re going to Chu, you should go south. You’re going north, it’s the wrong direction.” The man unconcernedly replied, “No problem! My horse is very fast.” Worried for him, the traveler pulled at the horse, and warned, “You’re going the wrong way. Even if your horse was even faster than it is, you still won’t reach the Kingdom of Chu!” Still not seeing the truth, the man said, “Don’t worry, I’ve brought a lot of money with me.” Making a concerted effort to dissuade him, the traveler said, “Though you may have a lot of money, you’re still going the wrong direction, and your money will be spent in vain.” Thinking of nothing other than getting to the Kingdom of Chu, the man impatiently said, “It’s not a problem, my driver is extremely skilled!” Out of options, the traveler let go of the carriage and watched helplessly as the aimless man from Wu rode away.

The man from Wu didn’t listen to anyone’s exhortations, relying on his fast horse, his money, his driver’s skill and many other favorable conditions, and obstinately continued to go in the opposite direction. Doing this, he could only continue to get further and further away from his goal, because his overall direction was wrong.

This story tells us, no matter what the situation is, we’d better first be sure we’re going the right way, and only then can we fully employ our other advantages, otherwise those advantages will just cause us pain [lit: have the opposite effect].



4 comments to "The Story Behind the Idiom NanYuanBeiZhe"

  1. 謝謝你跟我們分享這個有意思的文章,也感謝你努力翻譯的很不錯~ 你真是辛苦。

  2. Reply William Long says: October 10, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    Excellent post, as usual!! Actually, I thought the lesson of the story would be something like– 你偶尔应该倾听别人的意见, since setting off in the right direction, and continuing in it, often isn’t within the province of the traveler alone. We need advice. So, I wonder if when these stories are taught, that the “moral” of the story is a “given” or is debatable–in Chinese education. I know how I would treat in in America.
    One other question–I think the construction–发充分挥 might trip up many, since the verb 发挥, to bring into play, is split by the “fully.”

    • Hm, agreed. Many times, when I read Chinese idiom stories, I’m surprised by the moral of the story, as the story patterns don’t seem to fit what we might expect from a westernized tale. It really does bring cultural narrative expectations into sharp relief.

  3. The way you have explained is very nice and understandable.so that i could grasp it easily.Iam definitly going to try this method of studying.
    http://essaysthatwins.com wil help students for wring essays.Thank you so much for posting this information.


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