What Only The Rooster Sees

I began learning English after I moved to the United States in 2010. It hasn’t always been easy. One of the most difficult things are idioms. You can imagine how confused I was when a student told me it was “raining cats and dogs” outside. Or there was that time before a martial arts performance when someone told me to “break a leg!”

Chinese also has idioms. They are called chengyu (成语).   Most chengyu come from famous legends or historic events. There are over 5,000 chengyu in the Chinese language. Today I’d like to share one of my favorites. It is recorded in the chapter “The Life of Zu Ti” in the official history of the Jin Dynasty (晋书).

The Jin Dynasty (265-420) was a dangerous time. Barbarian invasions caused widespread suffering.  The Jin nobility abandoned their capital and fled south. During that time, a boy named Zu Ti (祖逖) was born. As a child, Zu Ti was very mischievous. But as he grew older, Zu Ti saw the decline and fragmentation of his country. He decided to the study history and military strategy in order to help reclaim his country.

Later, both Zu Ti and his childhood friend Liu Kun (刘琨) were appointed as clerks in Sizhou Prefecture. It is recorded that Zu Ti and Liu Kun shared a deep affection for each other, sharing the same bed and the same blanket. The two also shared the same dream, working in government to serve the Jin Dynasty.

One night, as they slept, Zu Ti was woken up by the crowing of a rooster. He kicked Liu Kun awake. He suggested that any time they heard the rooster crow, they get up and practice sword. Liu Kun agreed. Morning sunrise was reflected in the flash of their blades, through winter and summer. Over time, they became masters of both pen and sword. Zu Ti served as a general and led a series of successful military expeditions against the invading tribes. Liu Kun became a Jin Dynasty statesman and military strategist.

The Chinese idiom 闻鸡起舞 means to “Practice sword a the rooster’s crow”. Here are the Chinese characters:

wén – to listen

jī – rooster

qǐ – to get up

wǔ – (short for 舞剑 meaning to practice the sword)

This idiom is used to describe a person who is working hard to reach their dream. It is one of my favorites because it is relevant to martial arts and spiritual practice. There are many lessons we can take from the story:

– Unhappy with the current political state? Empowering yourself to realize your full potential should be part of your plan for making change.

– Want to do great things? You must work hard, even when other people are not looking. This might even mean waking up early. What are the secrets that only a rooster (or your alarm clock) might see?

– It is important to be around people who support you.  If you can not find someone who shares your dream, at least minimize the influence of those who stand in your way.

If you are diligent and motivated in your practice, you should see good progress.

2017 is the year of the rooster. Are you ready to 闻鸡起舞?