Mon, Aug 27, 2018 - Page 9 News List


The 13th strategy in the sanshiliu ji (Thirty-six Strategems, see Using Idioms on May 14) is 打草驚蛇, literally to beat the grass to scare the snakes or, by extension, to inadvertently alert an enemy to one’s presence or one’s plans. The imagery is quite self-explanatory, of course. The idiom, thought to derive from a reference in the nantang jinshi (A Modern History of the Southern Tang Dynasty) written by Song Dynasty scholar Zheng Wenbao, is now generally used in a negative sentence, that is, “don’t beat the grass and alert the snake,” to mean to avoid any action that will alert others to what you are doing.

A story in Zheng’s book tells of how a corrupt county magistrate of the Southern Tang named Wang Lu received a complaint about how one of his subordinates had been taking bribes, and he realized that he was also guilty of the crimes being brought before him. He wrote a commentary on the document, 汝雖打草,吾已?驚: “you have beaten the grass, and now I, like a snake concealed within, have been startled.” Wang had been alerted to the danger of being caught, even though the complaint was not directed at him.

It has appeared in other works of Chinese literature, too, including the Ming Dynasty novel the xiyou ji (Journey to the West). In chapter 67 there is the line 行者見了笑道:『妖怪走了,你還撲甚的了?』八戒道:『老豬在此打草驚蛇哩!』: “Seeing this, the monk said, laughing, ‘the monsters have gone, so why are you still thrashing around?’ Zhu Bajie said, ‘I’m just trying to scare off the snakes.’”(Paul Cooper, Taipei Times)

Remove your shoes; walk softly. We don’t want to let the cat out of the bag and wake them.


The police have got involved and are investigating our past shady deals. Now the cat’s really out of the bag.


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