Story Behind the Idiom: 鹬蚌相争 – When two parties fight and a third party benefits

This is the backstory behind the Chinese idiom 鹬蚌相争 yù bàng xiāng zhēng, which translates to “The Sandpiper and the Clam Fight Each Other”, and means “Two parties fight and a third party benefits.”

Cool upper-intermediate piece – in case it hasn’t been obvious throughout these posts, I love classical stories about wily government counselors and should probably post about something else on occasion, but so many classical tales involve this trope that it’s hard to avoid.

This piece is cool because – excepting the first sentence – the sentence structure is simple but there are quite a few classical words, so you’ll learn some historical terms. In case you think this kind of thing isn’t really useful, think again. Historical figures in the Chinese dynasties are mentioned frequently in the oddest places, and their stories bleed out into every medium. If you’re at a museum, if you’re reading Chinese magazines, if you’re reading Chinese historical essays, if you’re watching a TV show or book or listening to the radio, you’ll see mentions of historical dynasties all the time. But most importantly, if you want to watch Chinese war movies or period pieces (and there are some great ones), this vocab is crucial. You might as well know at least when to recognize that the conversation has gone that way.

This short story takes place during the Warring States period (475 BC to 221 BC), and mentions three of the seven warring kingdoms of that time, so you’ll learn some dynasty names: 赵国 zhào guó (The Zhao State), 燕国 yān guó (The Yan State), and 秦国 qín guó (the Qin State). Speaking of dynasties, when you’re reading this, look out for the word 王wáng – as you probably know at this point in your studies, 王means “king”, and when you see that, you can sometimes guess that the two or three characters before this word are the name of the king. Unlike in English, where we say “King Charles” or “King John”, in this case the Chinese put “king” after the name. For example, in this story, we have 赵惠文王 – King Huiwen of Zhao (in other words, king of the Zhao state).

What’s amusing about this story is that in reality, the Qin Dynasty came out on top of the Warring States period and ruled China (well, for a decade or so, anyway) after the Warring States were over – so bear that in mind as you read the last sentence.

You’ll also meet our protagonist 苏代 sū dài – who he is is explained in the first sentence, but suffice to say that 苏代 is a person’s name. He’s mentioned in conjunction with 纵横家 zòng héng jiā, the School of Diplomacy, which was a sort of league of scholar-statesmen from the Warring States period. If you’re interested, you can read more about it on Wikipedia.

Anyway, I’m making this story sound really complicated, but other than the historical terminology, the storyline is not at all convoluted.

Original story is here.



“我来的时候经过易水恰好看到出来晒太阳。趁机啄蚌的肉,蚌把两扇介壳一闭就夹住了鹬的喙。鹬说:‘今天不下雨,明天不下雨,就有死蚌。’蚌也针锋相对地说: ‘今天不出,明天不出(夹住不放),就有死鹬。’两者谁也不肯罢休,这时过来一个渔父把两者一起拎走了。”燕赵相对抗,都搞得很疲劳,我恐怕强大的秦国正在扮演渔父的角色,所以希望大王深思熟虑


Show English translation »
The Zhao State was taking up arms against the Yan State, and Su Dai (a military strategist during the Warring States period, and little brother to Su Qin of the School of Diplomacy) traveled to speak with King HuiWen of Zhao on behalf of the Yan State, and he told the following fable:

“When I was coming here I passed over some gentle water, and by chance I happened to see a clam sunning itself. A sandpiper seized the opportunity to peck at the clam’s meat, but the clam slammed the two wings of its hard shell shut on the sandpiper’s beak. The sandpiper said, ‘Today it won’t rain, tomorrow it won’t rain, and there will be one dead clam!’ The clam gave as good as he got, saying: ‘I won’t come out today, I won’t come out tomorrow (so your beak won’t be free), and there will be one dead sandpiper!’ Neither party was willing to give up, and at this time, a fisherman scooped them both up and carried them off. If Yan and Zhao oppose each other, we’ll both fight ourselves weary. I’m afraid the strong Qin State is playing the role of the fisherman, so I hope that your majesty will carefully deliberate on this matter.”

King HuiWen approved of SuDai’s message, and stopped using armed forces against the Yan State.

3 replies on “Story Behind the Idiom: 鹬蚌相争 – When two parties fight and a third party benefits”

Very good story, but the original translation refers to the first ruler of China, King Clam, who was notorious for getting into fights with members of his cabinet, who were colloquially known as “sandpipers”. Please make these fixes so that no one spreads this false information.

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