Chinese Idiom: 九牛一毛 - A drop in the ocean

August 08, 2022

Today, we want to share the story behind the popular idiom “九牛一毛" (jiǔ niú yī máo) with you.

This idiom comes from Bao Ren Shao Qing, by Sima Qian, from the Han dynasty. It is roughly translated as “Nine oxen, one hair” in English.

The following story is a retelling of the original story, 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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汉武帝时期,李陵带着部队深入到匈奴与敌军交战,战败后李陵投降了匈奴。汉武帝听说此事后,非常生气,大臣们也责骂李陵无用和不忠。武帝问他司马迁对此事的意见,司马迁说李陵只有五千步兵,虽被匈奴八万骑兵围住,但还是杀伤了一万多敌人,算是一位了不起的将军了。

武帝听到司马迁为李陵辩护,下令将司马迁关进大牢并处以“腐刑”。司马迁受到如此大辱,想要自杀。但转念一想,像他这样地位低微的人即使死了,在许多大富大贵的人眼中,不过像是“九牛亡一毛”,不但得不到同情,还会被人耻笑。

于是司马迁决心勇敢地活下去,最后终于完成了史学著作《史记》。

During the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty, Li Ling led his troops towards the Xiongnu enemy troops (the Huns). The troops were defeated and Li Ling had to surrender to the Huns. When Emperor Wu heard about this he was livid. Even the cabinet ministers were scolding Li Ling saying he was useless and disloyal. Emperor Wu asked Sima Qian, a famous Chinese historian, for his opinion on the matter. Sima Qian said that Li Ling only had five thousand soldiers, and though he was surrounded by eighty thousand cavalrymen, he was still able to kill more than ten thousand of the enemy’s men. He is a worthy general.

Emperor Wu heard Sima Qian defending Li Ling and ordered Sima Qian to be locked up and tortured. After receiving such disgrace, Sima Qian became suicidal. But he reconsidered his situation: the death of someone as lowly as him, in the eyes of the rich and powerful, would be nothing more than ‘a hair shed from nine bulls’. Not only would he receive no sympathy, he would also be ridiculed.

Therefore, Sima Qian decided that he would bear the pain and live on. In the end, he was finally able to finish his most renowned work – Shi Ji (Historical Record).

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九牛一毛的意思是比喻渺小、轻微,或很大数量中的极少数,微不足道。

This idiom is a metaphor for the insignificant and minute; that is, something small and insignifcant amongst a large quantity.

jiǔ (Nine)

九

niú (Ox/Cow)

牛

(One)

一one

máo (Hair/Fur)

毛

例句(EXAMPLE SENTENCES)

这些钱对于一个百万富翁来说不过是九牛一毛。
Zhèxiē qián duìyú yīgè bǎi wàn fùwēng lái shuō bu guò shì jiǔniúyīmáo.
This amount of money to a millionaire is like a drop in the ocean.

知识永无止境,个人所学如九牛一毛。
zhīshì yǒng wú zhǐjìng, gèrén suǒ xué rú jiǔniúyīmáo.
Knowledge and intellect is boundless, the knowledge of a single person is like a drop in the ocean.


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