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November 18, 2023

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When the tree topples, the monkeys run away

IN ancient China, Confucians repeatedly proclaimed “man on earth, good at birth,” a reference to the belief that humans are born inherently virtuous.

But two common Chinese proverbs seem to indicate less benevolent characteristics of human nature.

They observe that, in general, people tend to seek benefits and protection from a powerful or influential man, but they will leave or even strike him when he is down and out.

One of the two idioms is shudao husunsan, or “when the tree topples, the monkeys run away.”

The phrase was first used in a poem about a flunky of Qin Gui (1090-1155), a notorious and venal high-ranking official in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279).

After Qin’s fall, all people close to him were either dismissed by the imperial court or ran away.

In English, people have a similar saying: “rats leaving a sinking ship.”

The other phrase reads qiangdao zhongrentui, which translates as “when a wall is about to collapse, everybody gives it a shove.”

This expression was quoted in “A Dream of Red Mansions,” one of the four great classical novels in China. In the novel, written in the middle of 18th century, the author used this phrase to describe the ill treatment or even the delivery of a death blow to a person who is down, implying that everybody would do likewise in the same situation.

Those who believe in these two Chinese proverbs shouldn’t expect a helping hand will be offered in times of need. Instead, one should be prepared to be forsaken by those closest, or at worst, be destroyed by them with a push over the cliff.


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