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As a Friday treat, I thought I’d take this opportunity to teach an interesting Chinese idiom to all of our friends and fellow logophiles out there in cyberspace.

A while back, I talked about the phrase 马后炮 (mă hòu pào), which is essentially a way of telling someone to shove it when they scold you for an event or situation that’s too late to avoid. (One of our readers suggested an English translation of “No use crying over spilled milk,” which I think is pretty appropriate.) In that same entry, we discussed how the Chinese language is chock-full of metaphorical idioms (called chengyu, or 成语) pulled from ancient stories and literature, which are used to offer concise insight into common experiences or situations.

Today, I’d like to talk about another one of my favorite Chinese idioms: 刻舟求剑 (kè zhōu qiú jiàn). To take this phrase character by character, 刻 (kè) means to carve or engrave, a 舟 (zhōu) is a boat, 求 (qiú) is a verb meaning to seek, and 剑 (jiàn) means sword. Put them all together, and this phrase literally means “to mark (or put a notch on) the boat to find one’s sword.” But what the heck does that mean? Read on a bit and it’ll make more sense, I promise.

刻舟求剑


This idiom comes from a story in the ancient Chinese text, “Mister Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals” (吕氏春秋), which is essentially a classical encyclopedia (circa 239 BCE) that touches on a broad range of topics, including military affairs, government, and agriculture, etc., all with a philosophical nod at contemporary Taoist and Confucian thought. The following is a loose translation of the story from which the abovementioned idiom derives.

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In the Warring States Period, there was a man from the State of Chu who was crossing a river on a boat. When the boat reached the middle of the river, the man from Chu accidentally dropped his sword into the water. He scrambled to grab it, but it was too late: the sword had already sunk to the bottom of the river.

The man immediately pulled out a small dagger and proceeded to carve a small mark into the side of the boat. He then said aloud, “This is where my sword dropped in the water.”

When the boat reached the bank on the other side of the river, the man from Chu jumped into the water to look for his sword in the place where he had marked the boat.

The boat had since moved, but the sword itself had not. Isn’t this a foolish way to look for his sword?

So basically, “to mark the boat to find one’s sword” means to adopt a stupid approach to solving a problem, or to stubbornly stick to an ineffective method of doing something while disregarding any changes in the situation.

Here’s an example of this from my own life:

My dad is a very meat-and-potatoes, traditional type of guy. In some ways, he’s even a bit of a Luddite when it comes to new technology. Every April when taxes are due, this proves to be a terrible combination.

He views the family’s finances as something that he, as the “head of the household,” should be in charge of. Completely disregarding the fact that my mom is an accomplished accountant, my father sets out to prepare all of our taxes by himself.

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Now, I love the guy, but filing taxes and balancing checkbooks isn’t really his strong point. Especially because he refuses to use a computer to do them, preferring to go through every receipt, paycheck stub, potential reduction and everything else by hand, adding everything up with a little solar-paneled calculator from the early nineties.

Every year he does this, and every year he messes up our taxes, at which point my mom has to secretly go and do them behind his back with Turbo Tax. What takes my dad the better part of a frustrating day to do wrong, takes my mom about an hour to do correctly. And yet he still insists on doing it.

In this sense, my dad marking the boat to find his sword is a sick family tradition that I hope will continue for many years to come, because it’s absolutely hilarious. Do you have any experiences like this, or a similar idiom in your own language?

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  1. Hi Zach,

    The phenomenon of the ineffectual man, too proud to let his womenfolk sort the thing out, must be worthy of a targeted idom in itself.

    Saying that, it can’t be too widespread – as my girlfriend will surely testify, I have never done anything wrong.

  2. Haha. She has actually testified this before — believe me, I asked.

    And I’m curious now as to whether or not there is a Chinese idiom for ineffectual men. I’m gonna check up on that. Maybe make another entry like this if I find one :)