Chinese idioms: Honest Advice Is Unpleasant to the Ear


Epoch Times, Singapore Edition (Issue 492, August 8 – August 21, 2014)

By Jade Pearce
Epoch Times Staff

This issue’s Chinese idiom is “honest advice is unpleasant to the ear” (忠言逆耳, zhōng yán nì ěr), which means that well-meaning admonitions will often clash with one’s present mindset, and can be hard to stomach. But these words are often what one really needs to hear, in order to rectify one’s ways and improve.

The idiom originates from the the ancient Chinese history text, Shiji (史记), or Grand Records of the Historian. Under the chapter “The Hereditary Houses of Marquis Liu”, the story takes place shortly before the Chinese general Liu Bang overturned the Qin Dynasty and became the first emperor of the Han Dynasty—Emperor Gaozu.

In 207 AD, Liu Bang had successfully captured Xianyang, the capital of the Qin Dynasty, and he went into the imperial palace to have a look around.

When Liu Bang stepped into the palace, a magnificent sight greeted his eyes. There were countless treasures scattered throughout the place, some of which he had never seen or heard of before. Wherever he went, beautiful palace maidens knelt before him.

The more Liu Bang saw, the more mesmerised he was. As such, he decided to stay in the palace for a while and enjoy himself.

When Liu Bang’s wdeputy, Fan Kuai, heard that his superior and future emperor wanted to live in the palace, he said, “Does my Emperor Gaozu want to own the land under the sky, or does he merely want to be a rich man?”

Liu replied, “Of course I want to own the land under the sky.”

Fan Kuai continued earnestly, “After entering the imperial palace, you have seen vast numbers of precious treasures, and thousands of beautiful women. But these are the very things that led to the downfall of the Qin Dynasty.

“I hope Your Majesty will immediately return to the battlefield. No matter what you do, do not stay in the palace.”

But Liu Bang did not take Fan Kuai’s advice to heart, and continued to make plans to live in the palace.

When Liu Bang’s military strategist, Zhang Liang, heard about Liu’s plan, he said to Liu, “The Qin Emperor was immoral, and so the people revolted and helped us to defeat the Qin army. It was because of their help that you could be inside this palace today.

“You have helped the people get rid of a tyrannical ruler, and people expect you to be the antithesis of this tyrant: diligent and frugal. Yet, shortly after entering Qin territory, you are already thinking of enjoying yourself.

“There is a saying: ‘Honest and straightforward advice is often unpleasant to the ear, but it helps rectify one’s ways. Potent medicine is often bitter to the tongue, but it cures illnesses. I hope Your Majesty will heed Fan Kuai’s sincere advice.”
Upon hearing this, Liu Bang finally realised his mistake. He immediately ordered for the imperial treasury to be sealed up, closed the gates to the imperial palace, and led his troops back on his conquest.

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