The mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the sparrow behind

螳螂捕蟬, 麻雀在后 táng láng bǔ chán má què zài hòu

The mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the oriole behind.

This story is excerpted from the Writings of Chuang-Tzu ( Kwang dze in James Legge’s transcribe system), or Zhuang zi (in modern Chinese Pīnyīn), name Zhōu (or Kâu in James Legges’s transcribe system).

This idiom when quoted in modern Chinese writing, a sparrow ( má què) is used instead of oriole, but in normal translation (as in a dictionary) an oriole is used. Oriole is mostly tropical songbird, the male is usually bright orange and black; or American songbird, male is black and orange or yellow.

In this story Chuang Tzu just say a strange bird with huge eyes from the south, its wings were seven cubits in width. The bird has large eyes but failed to see Chuang tzu approaching who was trying to shoot it with the cross-bow, since all the bird’s attention were on its prey, i.e., the mantis and cicada. This scenario startled and awakened Chuang tzu, because he wasn’t aware the forester who was behind him to find fitting object of reproach, either. If he shoot the bird, he would have become the victim of the forester just as the cicada of mantis, or both the cicada and mantis of the bird.

As Kwang Kâu (庄周, Zhuāng Zhōu in modern Chinese Pīnyīn) was rambling in the park of Tiâo-ling, he saw a strange bird which came from the south. Its wings were seven cubits in width, and its eyes were large, an inch in circuit. It touched the forehead of Kâu as it passed him, and lighted in a grove of chestnut trees. ‘What bird is this?’ said he, ‘with such great wings not to go on! and with such large eyes not to see me!’ He lifted up his skirts, and hurried with his cross-bow, waiting for an opportunity to shoot it. Meanwhile he saw a cicada, which had just alighted in a beautiful shady spot, and forgot its care for its body. Just then, a preying mantis raised its feelers, and pounced on the cicada, in its eagerness for its prey, also forgetting its care for its body; while the strange bird took advantage of its opportunity to secure them both, in view of that gain forgetting its true instinct of preservation. Kwang Kâu with an emotion of pity, said, ‘Ah! so it is that things bring evil on one another, each of these creatures invited its own calamity.’ With this he put away his cross-bow, and was hurrying away back, when the forester pursued him with terms of reproach.

When he returned and went into his house, he did not appear in his courtyard for three months. When he came out, Lan Zü (his disciple) asked him, saying, ‘Master, why have you for this some time avoided the courtyard so much?’ Kwang-dze replied, ‘I was walking about in the park of Tiâo-ling, and forgot myself. A strange bird brushed past my forehead, and went flying about in the grove of chestnuts, where it forgot the true art of preserving itself. The forester of the chestnut grove thought that I was a fitting object for his reproach. These are the reasons why I have avoided the courtyard.’

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