Chinese Idiom Explained: 刻舟求剑

August 26, 2022

The popular Chinese idiom “刻舟求剑” (kè zhōu qiú jiàn) can be roughly translated as "being stuck in your ways” in English.

In this blog, we will share with you both the Chinese and the English versions of the story behind the idiom “刻舟求剑” (kè zhōu qiú jiàn), what it means, as well as how to use it in a sentence.

Let’s dive in!

chinese idiom 刻舟求剑


Long ago, there was a man from the state of Chu who adored his sword. He took it with them everywhere he went. One day, he was crossing the river on a ferry. Towards the middle of the crossing, he suddenly realized that his sword had slipped into the water! He wanted to grab it, but it was already too late! The others on the boat were frantically trying to help him, urging and shouting ‘Quick! Jump in and grab it!’


But this man was not panicked at all. He simply pulled out a small knife and made a little mark on the boat. The others on the ferry thought this was very strange and asked him: ‘Why aren’t you going into the water and finding your sword? What did you carve a mark onto the boat?’


He pointed to the mark he made on the ferry and said confidently: ‘Don’t worry, this is where I lost my sword. When I’m back on shore, I’ll start looking from here.’

Chinese idiom kè zhōu qiú jiàn


As the ferry sailed away, it grew farther and farther away from where the sword fell. An hour later, the ferry finally arrived at the far bank of the river. Then, this man jumped into the water where his carving was and began looking for his sword. But how could he find it?


He searched for so long beneath the ferry, but his sword was nowhere to be found.

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This idiom tells us that we are destined to fail if we stay rigid and don't look at problems realistically.


‘Carving a boat to find a sword’ means to carve a mark so that you can find the sword. (But of course, you’ll never find the sword that way!) So this idiom is a metaphor for when someone does things rigidly and refuses to change with the times.


For example, when situations change, to ‘carve a mark on a boat to find a sword’ will be the greatest roadblock.

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(to carve)

Chinese idiom kè zhōu qiú jiàn- illustration for ke

zhōu (boat)

Chinese idiom kè zhōu qiú jiàn- illustration for zhou

qiú (hope, find)

Chinese idiom kè zhōu qiú jiàn- illustration for qiu

jiàn (sword)

Chinese idiom kè zhōu qiú jiàn- illustration for jian

例句 (Example Sentences)

Wúlùn zuò shénme, dōu yào gēnjù qíngkuàng de biànhuà suíshí tiáozhěng fāngfǎ, qiè bùnéng “kèzhōuqiújiàn”.
No matter what you do, you have to adjust your plan according to the situation before you. You can’t carve a mark on a boat to find your sword.

Shídài zài fāzhǎn, wǒmen jué bùnéng “kèzhōuqiújiàn”, yòng lǎo de fāngfǎ chǔlǐ yīqiè wèntí.
As the times change, we cannot be too stuck in our ways and solve all our problems using past methods.

About the Writer

Qi Laoshi

Tianjin Normal University; Chinese language textbook editor and a doting mother.


Want to learn more? We have more Chinese Idioms in store for you!