Chinese Idiom: 南辕北辙- Defeating One's Purpose

November 09, 2022

Today, we want to share the story behind the popular idiom “南辕北辙” (nán yuán běi zhé).

It is roughly translated as "defeating one's purpose” 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 南辕北辙 nán yuán běi zhé 3

很久以前,魏国有个叫季梁的大臣,他听说魏王为了称霸天下,打算去攻打赵国。季梁想去劝阻魏王,可是他知道魏王很固执,不会听别人的建议。于是他给魏王讲了一个故事。

Long ago, in the state of Wei lived Jì Liáng. He heard that the king of Wei wanted the title ‘bà tiān xià’ (Tyrant of all the land) and so was planning to invade the state of Zhao. Jì Liáng wanted to dissuade the Wei King, but he knew how stubborn the king was. He wouldn’t listen to others’ advice. So, he decided to tell the Wei king a story.

季梁说他来这儿的路上遇到了一个富商,正乘车向北去,说要去楚国。季梁就问他:“楚国在南边,你怎么往北走啊?”富商回答:“没事儿,我的马很强壮,可以日行千里!肯定能到达楚国。” 季梁提醒他:“马好是没有用的,因为这不是去楚国的方向。”

Jì Liáng told him that he had met a wealthy merchant on the road. He was on his way north, heading to the Chu State. Jì Liáng asked him: “Chu state is south. Why are you going north?” The wealthy merchant replied: “No worries, my horse is strong. He can travel for days and days! I’m sure we’ll get to Chu State.” Jì Liáng warned him: “It doesn’t matter how good your horse is because Chu State isn’t that direction.”

可是富商又说:"不怕不怕,我有充足的粮食和路费!”季梁又提醒他:"你有再多的粮食和路费也没有用啊,方向错了,那么你的条件越好,就让你离楚国越来越远。" 可是富商毫不担心,说:"我的马夫驾车技术很高!" 说完就驾车向北去了。

But the wealthy merchant insisted: "No, no, not to worry, and I’ve got enough food and money to cover my travel expenses!" Jì Liáng warned him again: "It won’t matter how much food or money you have. You’re going the wrong way. So the nicer your conditions are, the farther you’ll be from Chu State." But the wealthy merchant said without care: “My horse riding skills are exceptional!” And with that, he rode off north.

听完这个故事,魏王似乎明白了什么,季梁趁势说道:“ 大王您要称霸天下,就要取信于民,让老百姓佩服您、信任您。如果凭着自己实力强大就去攻打别的国家,是不能建立起威望的,反而会离您的目标越来越远啊!”

After hearing this story, the Wei King seemed to have understood something. Jì Liáng took this chance to say to the king: "My majesty, if you want to be known as bà tiān xià, then you must win the trust of the people, let the common folk admire and trust you. If you just rely on your might to invade another country, you can’t build the prestige you want. You’ll be farther away from your goal!"

魏王思考了一会儿,觉得很有道理,于是打消了攻打楚国的想法。

The Wei king thought about this for a while and thought it made sense, so he decided not to invade the Chu State after all.

Chinese idiom 南辕北辙 nán yuán běi zhé 2

这个故事告诉我们:如果行动和目标正好相反的话,那只会离你的目标越来越远,因此找对方向和方法很重要。

This idiom tells us that if your actions and goals are opposing, you will be farther and farther away from your target. So, finding the best direction and plan for your goal is paramount.

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这个成语的本义是说,本来要去南边,而马车却往北走。比喻所采取的行动和要达到的目的正好相反。

The literal translation of this idiom is that you’re meant to be going south, but your horse cart is going north. It is a metaphor for people who act in opposition to their goal.

nán (South)

南 nan in 南辕北辙 nán yuán běi zhé

yuán (The two wooden bars at the front of the horse cart)

辕yuán in Chinese idiom 南辕北辙 nán yuán běi zhé

běi (North)

北 běi in 南辕北辙 nán yuán běi zhé

zhé (the tracks left behind by the horse cart)

辙 zhé in 南辕北辙 nán yuán běi zhé

例句 (Example Sentences)

你一边急着要减肥,一边却又吃这么多肉和甜食,这不是南辕北辙吗
Nǐ yībiān jízhe yào jiǎnféi, yībiān què yòu chī zhème duōròu hé tiánshí, zhè bùshì nányuánběizhé ma?
You’re trying to lose weight, but you’re also eating nothing but meat and sweet stuff. Isn’t this against your goal?

虽然我们一直在提倡素质教育,然而学校却只注重学生的考试成绩,这种南辕北辙的做法当然不会有任何成效。
Suīrán wǒmen yīzhí zài tíchàng sùzhì jiàoyù, rán'ér xuéxiào què zhǐ zhùzhòng xuéshēng de kǎoshì chéngjī, zhè zhǒng nányuánběizhé de zuòfǎ dāngrán bù huì yǒu rènhé chéngxiào.
Even though we’re always advocating for better etiquette, the school only focuses on exam grades. This style of education is defeating the purpose. Of course it won’t work.

某些国家为了称霸世界,企图凭着自己强大的实力去干涉别国的内政,控制世界局势,这种做法无疑是南辕北辙,只会遭到历史的唾弃。
Mǒu xiē guójiā wèile chēngbà shìjiè, qìtú píngzhe zìjǐ qiángdà de shílì qù gānshè bié guó de nèizhèng, kòngzhì shìjiè júshì, zhè zhǒng zuòfǎ wúyí shì nányuánběizhé, zhǐ huì zāo dào lìshǐ de tuòqì.
Some countries want to dominate the world, attempting to use their might and power to infiltrate other countries' governments and control the world stage. This action is undoubtedly going against the purpose, and this will cause them to be cast away in history.

About the Writer

Qi Laoshi

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

QI LAOSHI CY AUTHOR


Learn more Chinese Idioms here!