Story Behind the Idiom: 刻舟求剑 – Being too rigid in the face of change

Yang over at Learn Mandarin Now is spoiling me with all these guest posts. I’ve been struggling to find something that suitable for beginners lately – everything I stumble across ends up being intermediate. But this is a very good place for beginners to start reading chéngyǔ (成语 idiom) stories, because you’ll get an introduction to a few words that you often see in this kind of “long long ago, far far away” fable.

In the very first sentence, we run across three words of interest. One, 从前 cóngqián, means “a long time ago”, your classic storybook beginning.

The second, 楚国人 chǔguórén, means “a man from the State of Chu“. The State of Chu was a Chinese jurisdictional division during the Zhou Dynasty (1046 – 256 BC). In stories that reference pre-1900 China, you’ll often see references to places that existed in ancient times. Encyclopedia Britannica tells us: “China itself was at the time divided into a series of small duke states, all of which theoretically owed allegiance to the Zhou dynasty, although the Zhou rulers had long since been unable to exercise control over more than their own fiefs.” Anyhoo, the third word is 宝剑 bǎojiàn, which means “a double-edged sword”. How fable-y is that, huh?

I’d also like to draw your attention to the word 移动 yìdòng, meaning “to be moving” or “mobile”. This word is quite common – it’s used to refer to people who move often, and also to “mobile” phones (the cell provider “China Mobile” has this in their Chinese name: 中国移动).

Okay, let’s do this. And thanks again to Yang! Lots of work for some paltry backlinks.

Want something easier?

Du Chinese has a big catalog of easy HSK 1 and HSK 2 texts for ultra-beginners. There are quite a few free practice lessons, but CRP readers get 10% off on paid accounts using the discount code CRP10.



从前有一位楚国人, 他非常爱惜他的宝剑。有一天,他正坐在船上准备过河,一不小心他就把宝剑掉进了河里。他马上在宝剑掉落的地方作了记号。当他到达对岸的时候,他沿着记号跳进河里去找他的宝剑。当然,他已经找不到了。


Show English translation »
Long ago, there was a man from the State of Chu who loved his sword very much. One day, he was sitting in his boat preparing to cross a river, when he accidentally dropped his sword into the water. He immediately made a notch on the side of the boat at the place where his dear sword fell. When he returned close to shore, he re-entered the water just beneath the notch he made, looking for his sword. Naturally, he wasn’t able to find it.

The sword was already gone because the boat and the river were in motion. This idiom is used to describe a person who sticks to rigid rules without considering a changing environment [or describes an action made pointless by changing circumstances].

40 replies on “Story Behind the Idiom: 刻舟求剑 – Being too rigid in the face of change”

Hi, I’m Ivy from China, I’m learning English now. Can we be friend that exchange language? Can you add my Skype: ivy1990122, or my Wechat:441020455

Hi Ivy ni hao
My name is Arry, I am in Australia.
I have been learning Chinese for a while.
It is good if we could help one another to learn the language..

Where in the story, does it say he “made a notch on the side of the boat”? Reference sentence 他马上在宝剑掉落的地方作了记号.

Good spot – nowhere in the story does it say “On the side of the boat”. I just couldn’t find a way in English to explain what that sentence meant without adding that to the translation. Didn’t want anyone to think he’d tried to make a notch on the water.

I don’t think 记号 is a “notch” in this case but more of a “marker”. I think it can be translated that he tried to put a marker in the water where the sword was. In any case, he has to be pretty stupid to think a marker would stay in one place in the water without an anchor.

You haven’t written the expression except in pinyin. It does seem to suggest that the boat is being marked 刻舟。

This story was recently referred to by famous social commentator Yu Hua (餘華) in his op-ed piece for the New York Times regarding online censorship in China called “對不起,原文已經被刪除”.

You can read both the Mandarin and English versions of his interesting op-eds side by side here:

Thanks for the amazing website Kendra!

The idiom is “刻舟求剑” (Kè zhōu qiú jiàn), which character-by-character literally means “carve-boat-search-sword”, or as the iPhone Pleco app puts it:

“nick the boat to seek the sword” (make a notch on the side of a moving boat to locate where a sword dropped overboard)– an action made pointless by changed circumstances.

In Yu Hua’s New York Times editorial on censorship in China, he likens the Party’s invitation of criticism from the people and the subsequent censorship of public blog posts to this idiom; the result was that no real criticisms could be found in public forums.

If you don’t have the free Pleco app yet, I highly recommend it as it handles idioms quite well, even if you only know the pinyin (as in this case)!

Good story and I bet the man felt bad but I think it would be a little better if they told a little bit of why he lovedhis sourd so much because I don’t see much of a cause if he loved it so much at the age of sourds and stuff so why dous he like it a lot is my question but after all it was a pretty good story

True, many fables leave us without backstory. In fact, the original scripts for old Chinese fables are famously short on words.

I thought this story was published before in books. – When I got this Chinese book, it had the same story like thst story.

I thought this story was published before in books. – When I got this Chinese book, it had the same story like that story.

I love your site. I have a question. I come here to practice often, and now I run my cursor over the characters and the definition isn’t showing up. Is it showing up from your end. I want to know if it is your website or my computer. Thanks 😉

Otherwise this site is awesome it is helping me with my reading and character recognition skills a lot. Thanks again!!

Chloe, In ancient times, a sword is precious. It’s like you dropping your iPhone into the river or something precious like your wedding ring. Hence you would jump into the river to retrieve it.

I just found your website and it is great! For Chengyu it would be extremely helpful to include examples of usages. The meaning of the characters, the background story and how it is used in modern times are often different. I think this would make these types of posts more useful.

this website really inspire me..still wish to learn chinese though it seems like it is tough language bt i get inspired not to give up..THANKS

This was a very good short book to learn objects and other things that are important. Thank you! Also, I am learning Mandarin.

Where it said 一不 was it supposed to be 一天 because the English says “One day” and 一不 just doesn’t seem right there (though I could be wrong I have only a couple years experience learning Chinese)

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