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December 2, 2023

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The overturned chariot is a warning to those behind

CLASSICAL scholar, philosopher and poet Jia Yi (200-168 BC) was only 21 when he began service in the imperial court of Emperor Wen of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 25).

Today, his name is largely forgotten by most Chinese, but a saying in one of his famous political essays lives on.

Jia, who hailed from what is today Henan Province in central China, had become known as a scholar well versed in Chinese classics in his home county by the age of 18. After he began service in the royal court, he started to write essays on state affairs and presented them to the emperor.

In one of his essays, Jia criticized the policies of the short-lived Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), the first dynasty of imperial China.

He noted that previous dynasties, such as the Xia, Shang and Zhou, all reigned for several hundred years, while Qin lasted only for 15 years because its rulers did not understand the difference between conquering and ruling.

In conclusion, Jia said qianche zhifu, houche zhijian, or “the overturned chariot in front is a warning for those behind.”

The saying remains popular nowadays, used to advise people to learn from others’ mistakes.

Another similar proverb, qianshi buwang, houshi zhishi, urges people to remember the past. Its literal meaning is “past experience, if not forgotten, can serve as a guide for the future.”

So, no matter whether it’s an overturned chariot in front of you or lessons drawn from the past, it’s always good to learn from what went before.


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