Chinese Idiom Explained: 惊弓之鸟

July 21, 2022

The popular idiom “惊弓之鸟" (jīng gōng zhī niǎo) comes from “Strategies of the Warring States”, also known as 战国策 Zhan Guo Ce, and can be roughly translated as “someone afraid of their own shadow” in English.

In this blog, we want to share with you both the Chinese and the English retelling of the original story behind “惊弓之鸟jīng gōng zhī niǎo”, what it means, as well as how to use it in a sentence.

Let’s dive in!





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.”


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)

Surprised young woman

gōng (bow)

弓 gōng archery, target

niǎo (bird)

鸟niǎo bird

例句(Example Sentences)

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.

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.


Do you have an idiom you'd like us to explain? Click here to learn more Chinese idioms!