Tuesday, November 10, 2009

黔驢技窮

黔驢技窮 qiánlǘjìqióng: someone who has exposed his limited ability; the (proverbial) Guizhou donkey has exhausted its tricks—at one's wit's end; at the end of one's rope. This idiom comes from the following political fable by Liu Zongyuan (AD 773–819):

黔無驢,有好事者船載以入。至則無可用,放之山下。虎見之,龐然大物也,以為神。蔽林間窺之,稍出近之,憖憖然莫相知。他日,驢一鳴,虎大駭,遠遁,以為且噬己也,甚恐。然往來視之,覺無異能者。益習其聲,又近出前後,終不敢搏。稍近,益狎,蕩倚衝冒,驢不勝怒,蹄之。虎因喜,計之曰:「技止此耳!」因跳踉大闞,斷其喉,盡其肉,乃去。噫!形之龐也類有德,聲之宏也類有能。向不出其技,虎雖猛,疑畏,卒不敢取。今若是焉,悲夫!

Source here. Translation:

There were no donkeys in Qian until someone who was fond of curiosities brought one in by boat. After the man got it there, he found the donkey was useless, so he let it loose near the hills. A tiger, upon seeing it, thought it was such a large beast that it took it for a god. So the tiger hid in the forest to spy on it. Bit by bit the tiger came closer to it, but carefully so that it wouldn't know.

One day the donkey brayed, and the tiger was so terrified that he ran far off. He thought that the donkey was going to eat him and was extremely frightened. Yet as the tiger kept observing it time and again, he realized there wasn't anything unusual about the donkey. The tiger had gotten increasingly used to hearing the braying. He now came out near the donkey circling it, but still dared not pounce. In a little while, he pressed even closer to it, and he nudged it unconcernedly. Overcome with rage, the donkey kicked out at the tiger.

Now the tiger happily reckoned to himself, "So this is the extent of its talents." Thereupon he leaped, roaring loudly, and ripped open the donkey's throat. He ate his fill and then left.

Alas! The donkey's larger size made it seem to be a creature of virtue; its loud voice made it seem to be a creature of ability. If it had never revealed the limit of its talents, the tiger, despite his own ferociousness, would still have been suspicious and fearful and in the end would not have dared attack it. Now, instead, things have come to this—how disheartening!

Translated by Madeline K. Spring