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Emperor Yao, by Southern Song Dynasty painter Ma Lin.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Chinese Practice


(yue4 zu3 dai4 pao2)

go beyond the sacrificial altar and take over the kitchen









(Who’s right and who’s wrong here is between my brother and me, and we don’t need you poking your nose in where it’s not wanted.)


(Government agencies generally avoid treading on the toes of others and exceeding their respective responsibilities. As a result, when an emergency happens, they don’t mobilize quickly.)


meddle in affairs that do not concern you

go beyond your station

The ancient Chinese chronology of the first emperors contains many examples of respected rulers choosing successors based on their merits over direct succession for their sons. The legendary rulers Yao (reigned c. 2356 — 2255 BC, according to tradition) and Shun (reigned 2233 — 2184 BC, according to some accounts) and the semi-historical Great Yu were viewed by later thinkers — including Confucius and the Taoist philosopher Zhuang zi — as exemplars of sagely rule.

In some cases, their choices for successor declined the empire, citing the incumbent’s greater suitability for the role, as well as their own inadequacy.

According to legend, Yao passed over his son, Danzhu, and asked Shun to be his successor. According to Zhuang zi, Yao had previously asked Xu You, a legendary recluse, to take over the role of emperor, only for his offer to be turned down.

In the Happy Excursion chapter of the zhuangzi, there is a passage relating how Yao attempted to abdicate the throne to Xu. Xu refuses, saying, “You govern the kingdom, and the kingdom is well governed. Should I take your place, I would be doing so simply for the glory. The glory is merely guest of the reality; shall I be playing the part of the guest? The tailor-bird makes its nest in the deep forest, but only uses a single branch; the mole drinks from the river, but only drinks its fill. You must return and rest in being ruler — I will have nothing to do with the throne.”

Here, Xu is saying that every living thing has its abilities, and it should know these and limit itself to what it can do; he is saying that he would be unsuited to the task of governing the empire. He ends with reiterating the idea, using positions in the governing structure, each with their own specialties, to make his point: 庖人雖不治庖,尸祝不越樽俎而代之矣: “Though the cook is not attending to his kitchen, the representative of the dead and the officer of prayer would not leave their cups and stands to take his place.”

This phrase has come to us in abbreviated form in the Chinese idiom 越俎代庖, literally “go beyond the sacrificial altar and take over the kitchen,” and meaning to go beyond your station and meddle in affairs that do not concern you.

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