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Quenching Thirst by Watching Plums

Feb 8, 2009

chinese bayberry - still thirsty?

Storyteller: Last month, I told a story “Satisfying Hunger with Picture Cakes“. It tells people not to rely on unrealistic fantasy. Today, I will tell a similar story: “Quenching thirst by watching plums”.  The idea within this Chinese idiom is pretty close the “picture cake” one.  Sometimes, people use these two idioms together, and in most cases, one can replace the other in a dialogue or context. However, given the stories behind the two idioms, there is a little difference between the exact meaning of two idioms. “Drawing a picture cake” is more “ridicule” “ironical” or “Satire”, while the strategic “watching plums” story perhaps has slightly positive meaning. You can find this nuance by reading the two stories. Btw, both stories took place in the same Three Kingdoms period.

Quenching Thirst by Watching Plums

Cao Cao of the Three Kingdoms period (220-265) was not only a capable politician in managing state affairs, but also a strategist good at leading troops in going to war.

One summer, Cao Cao was leading his troops in a punitive expedition against Zhang Xiu. It was extraordinarily hot. The burning sun was like a fire, and the sky was cloudless. The soldiers were walking on the winding mountain paths. The dense forest and the hot rocks exposed to the sun on both sides of the paths made the soldiers feel suffocated. By noontime the soldiers’ clothes were wet through with sweat, and the marching speed slowed down. Some soldiers of weak physique even fainted on the roadside.

Seeing that the marching speed was slower and slower, Cao Cao was very worried because he feared that he might bungle the chance of winning the battle. But how could they quicken their speed? Cao Cao at once called the guide and asked him quietly whether there was a source of water nearby. The guide shook his head, saying that the spring water was on the other side of the mountain, which was very far that they have to make a detour to reach. Cao Cao realized that time didn’t allow them to make such a detour.

After thinking for a moment, he said to the guide, “Keep quiet. I’ll find a way out.” He knew that it would be hard to order his troops to quicken the steps. He had a brain wave and found a good solution. He spurred his horse and came to the head of the column. Pointing his horsewhip to the front, Cao Cao said, “Soldiers, I know there is a big forest of plums ahead. The plums there are both big and delicious. let’s hurry along, and we will reach the forest of plums after bypassing this hill.

cao-cao-quenching thirst by watching the plums

Cao Cao quenching thirst by watching the plums

When the solders heard this, they immediately slobbered. Picturing in their minds the sweet and sour flavour of the plums, the soldiers felt as if they were actually eating the plums themselves. The morale greatly boosted, the soldiers quickened their steps a great deal automatically.

This story comes from “The Fake Tangery” in Anecdotes of This World by Liu Yiqing of the Southern Dynasties period (420-589). From this story, people have derived the set phrase “quenching thirst by watching plums” to refer to trying to comfort oneself of others by idle dreams.


Storyteller: After reading the two stories, have you found the different meaning I mentioned above? No? Well, It’s OK. The bottom line is: a plum is better than a cake, so the “plum” story is slightly better than the “cake” story.

[Related Reading on Amazon]
1. Three Kingdoms: Chinese Classics
2. The Stories Behind Common Chinese Idioms

[Chinese Keywords]

1. http://baike.baidu.com/view/44657.htm

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