Chinese Idiom: 惊弓之鸟 - Afraid of one’s own shadow

July 21, 2022

惊弓之鸟 jīng gōng zhī niǎo 'Afraid of one’s own shadow'

Today, we want to share the story behind the popular idiom “惊弓之鸟" (jīng gōng zhī niǎo) with you.

This idiom comes from “Strategies of the Warring States”, or Zhan Guo Ce (战国策), and the following story is a retelling of the original story.

It is roughly translated as “someone afraid of their own shadow” 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…

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更羸是魏国有名的射箭能手。

一天,更羸跟魏王到郊外去玩,看见天上有鸟飞过。更羸对魏王说:“大王,我不用箭,只要拉一下弓,就能把飞鸟射下来。”“啊?”魏王有点信不过自己的耳朵,“会有这样的本事?”更羸说:“我可以试一下。”呆了一会儿,从东飞来一只大雁。更羸并不取箭,他左手托弓,右手拉弦,只听得“当”地一声响,那只大雁就从半空中掉下来了。

“呀!”魏王看了大吃一惊,“真有这样的本事!”更羸笑笑说:“没有什么稀奇,这是一只受过箭伤的失群的大雁。”魏王更加奇怪了,问:“您怎么知道的?”更羸说:“它飞得很慢,叫的声音很悲惨。飞得慢,因为它受过箭伤,伤口还在作痛;叫得悲惨,因为它离开同伴已经很久了。旧的伤口没长好,他心里还在害怕,所以一听到弦响就拼命往高处飞。这样一使劲,伤口又裂开了,它就掉下来了。”

Geng Lei was a famous and accomplished archer in the state of Wei.

One day, when Geng Lei and the King went for a day out in the suburbs, they saw a bird fly across the sky. Geng Lei said to the King: “Your majesty, I don’t even need to shoot my arrow, I only need to pluck my bow, and I can shoot the flying bird down.”

“Ah?” The King couldn’t believe his ears, “You really have that kind of ability?” Geng Lei said, “Let me try.” They sat there a while and a large goose flew from the east. Geng Lei did not grab for his arrow, but with his left hand he held the bow, and with his right hand, he plucked it. With nothing more than a ‘ting’ sound, the large goose fell from mid-air.

“Ah!” The King was shocked, “You really have that ability!” Geng Lei said with a chuckle: “It’s not that strange: this goose has been shot by an arrow and is astray from the flock.” The King was even more curious, and asked: “How do you know that?”

Geng Lei said: “It's flying so slow, and the sound of its call is wretched. It flies slowly because it's been shot, the wound is still healing. It sounds miserable because it’s been separated from its companions for a long time. The old wound hasn’t healed yet. He’s still frightened at heart, so when it heard the sound of the bow, it began flying upward without a thought. After exerting all this strength, the wound re-opened, and so the goose fell down.”

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This idiom tells us that a bird that can be frightened by the pluck of a bow is difficult to calm down. It is a metaphor for someone who has been frightened by something and now jumps at any sound.

jīng (startled)

惊吓 jīng xià Frightened

gōng (bow)

弓箭 gōng jiàn Bow and Arrow

niǎo (bird)

鸟niǎo bird

例句(Example Sentences)

小偷在偷车的时候,保安突然出现,他就像只惊弓之鸟一样到处乱窜
Xiǎotōu zài tōu chē de shíhòu, bǎo'ān túrán chūxiàn, tā jiù xiàng zhǐ jīnggōngzhīniǎo yīyàng dàochù luàn cuàn.
When the thief was stealing the car, the guard suddenly appeared; he scrambled away like a bird who was startled by a sound of the bow.

他越狱后,时时如惊弓之鸟,生怕再次被捕。
Tā yuèyù hòu, shíshí rú jīnggōngzhīniǎo, shēngpà zàicì bèi bǔ.
After he escaped from prison, it was as if he was scared of his own shadow, living in fear of being caught again.

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