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…
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.
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.
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!"
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.
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.
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.
南 nán (South)
辕 yuán (The two wooden bars at the front of the horse cart)
北 běi (North)
辙 zhé (the tracks left behind by the horse cart)
例句 （Example Sentences）
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?
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.
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
Tianjin Normal University; Chinese language textbook editor and a doting mother.
Learn more Chinese Idioms here!