Chinese Idiom: 杯弓蛇影 - When Suspicion and Doubt Become a Phobia

November 12, 2022

Today, we want to share the story behind the popular idiom “杯弓蛇影” (bēigōng shéyǐng).

It is roughly translated as "To have an intense fear based on an event in the past.” in English. We have included both the Chinese and the English versions of the story below.

Now, let's find out what it really means…

Chinese idiom 杯弓蛇影 1

有一年夏天,县令请杜宣喝酒。酒席设在厅堂里,北墙上挂着一张红色的弓。由于光线折射,酒杯中映入了弓的影子。杜宣看了,以为是一条蛇在酒杯里蠕动,顿时吓得要死。但县令是他的上司,又是特意请他来喝酒的,不敢不喝,所以硬着头皮喝了几口。

One summer, Xiàn Lìng invited Dù Xuān for a drink. They met at a big hall, and on the north wall of this hall was a painting of a red archery bow. Because of how the light refracted, the image of the archery bow appeared in their glass. Dù Xuān was startled to see the refraction and thought there was a snake wriggling in his glass. But as Xiàn Lìng was his superior and had invited Dù Xuān, especially for a drink, there was no way he could refuse to drink it. So he stiffened up his upper lip and took a few sips.

回到家,杜宣越来越疑心刚才饮下的是有蛇的酒,又感到蛇在肚中蠕动,觉得腹部疼痛异常,难以忍受,吃饭、喝水都非常困难。家里人请了大夫为他治病。但他吃了很多药,病情还是不见好转。

When they got home, Dù Xuān became increasingly worried about the snake in his drink and felt like it was wriggling in his stomach. His stomach started to hurt, and the pain was unbearable. Eating and drinking became increasingly difficult. His family members called the doctor to treat him, but he did not get any better, even after taking a lot of medication.

县令听说了此事,问他怎么会生病的,杜宣便讲了那天喝酒时酒杯里有蛇的事儿。县令也觉得很奇怪,回家坐在厅堂里反复回忆和思考,弄不明白杜宣酒杯里怎么会有蛇的。突然,北墙上的那张红色的弓引起了他的注意。他马上坐在那天杜宣坐的位置上,取来一杯酒,也放在原来的位置上。

Xiàn Lìng heard about this and asked how he got so ill. So Dù Xuān had to tell him about the snake in his glass. Xiàn Lìng thought this was very strange. He returned to the hall and went over the events of that day in his mind. He could not figure out how the snake got into the glass. Suddenly, the archery bow on the wall caught his attention. He rushed to where Dù Xuān sat that day, filled a glass, and sat down exactly as he was that day.

Chinese idiom 杯弓蛇影 2

结果发现,酒杯中有弓的影子,不仔细看,确实像是一条蛇在蠕动。他马上让人把杜宣接来,让他坐在原位上,叫他仔细看看酒杯里的影子,并说:“你说的杯中的蛇,不过是墙上那张弓的倒影罢了,没有其他的怪东西,现在你可以放心了。”杜宣弄清原委后,疑虑立即消失,病也很快痊愈了。

He discovered that the archery bow created a reflection, and if you weren’t careful, you could easily mistake it for a wriggling snake. He instantly summoned his people to bring Dù Xuān over. He asked him to sit at the same seat he was at that day to have a closer look at the reflection in this glass and said: “You said there was a snake in your glass, but it was nothing more than the reflection of the archery bow painting. Nothing strange, you can now relax.” Once the story was cleared up, Dù Xuān’s worries disappeared. He also made a full recovery.

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杯弓蛇影的意思是:原义是将映在酒杯里的弓影误认为蛇,后比喻因疑神疑鬼而引起恐惧。

This idiom means to mistake a reflection of an archery bow for a snake. It is a metaphor for when suspicion and doubt become a phobia.

bēi (Cup, glass)

杯 bēi in 杯弓蛇影 bēigōng shéyǐng.

gōng (Archery bow)

弓 gōng in 杯弓蛇影 bēigōng shéyǐng.

shé (Snake)

蛇 shé in 杯弓蛇影 bēigōng shéyǐng.

yǐng (Shadow)

影 yǐng in 杯弓蛇影 bēigōng shéyǐng

例句 (Example Sentences)

自从那次火灾后,村民一听到孩子的惊叫就杯弓蛇影,以为又是哪一家失火了。
Zìcóng nà cì huǒzāi hòu, cūnmín yī tīng dào háizi de jīng jiào jiù bēigōngshéyǐng, yǐwéi yòu shì nǎ yījiā shīhuǒle.
Since the fire, when the village children hear screams they mistake a bow for a snake and think another house is on fire.

她不知从哪儿听到要地震的消息,整天杯弓蛇影,稍有动静就慌作一团。
Tā bùzhī cóng nǎ'er tīng dào yào dìzhèn de xiāoxī, zhěng tiān bēigōngshéyǐng, shāo yǒu dòngjìng jiù huāng zuò yī tuán.
She’s not even sure where she heard the news that there might be an earthquake. Her fear grew from nothing. Even the slightest vibration will send her into a panic.

你别笑我杯弓蛇影,凡是遭过小偷的人,一有风吹草动便觉惶惶难安。
Nǐ bié xiào wǒ bēigōngshéyǐng, fánshì zāoguò xiǎotōu de rén, yī yǒu fēngchuīcǎodòng biàn jué huánghuáng nán ān.
Don’t laugh at my fear. Anyone who has been mugged is easily frightened. Even a light wind can upset me.

About the Writer

Zhao Laoshi

Hainan Normal University graduate; Previously taught Chinese in Indonesia. Zhao laoshi is loved for her friendly attitude in class.

ZHAO LAOSHI CY AUTHOR


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