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April 19, 2009

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骑虎难下 (qi2 hu3 nan2 xia4) - Plight of riding a tiger

The popular Chinese idiom qi2 hu3 nan2 xia4, or "he who rides a tiger finds it hard to get off," is believed to have originated at the beginning of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (AD 317-420).

When first used, it was so apt that it helped to extend the rule of the fledgling dynasty for nearly a century.

When Sima Shao, emperor of the newly founded Eastern Jin Dynasty, died in AD 325, his young son Sima Yan became the ruler. But soon after one of his generals, Su Jun, decided to rebel against him.

In the spring of AD 328, troops led by General Su launched a surprise attack and soon seized the capital, today's Nanjing in East China. Su killed many officials who were loyal to the imperial court and put the young emperor and empress under house arrest.

When the news of the fall of the capital reached central China's Wuchang, Governor Wen Jiao vowed to put down the rebellion and help reinstate the emperor. Wen decided to form an anti-rebel coalition by joining forces with Tao Kan, the governor of Jingzhou.

At first, Tao was reluctant to cooperate with Governor Wen because he was unhappy that the new ruler had never offered him a promotion. But after he learned that his own son had been killed by the rebels in the capital, the governor changed his mind.

The war between the loyal troops and rebels lasted for several months and the siege of the capital gradually became a stalemate. Again, Tao hesitated. One day, he told Governor Wen that he intended to quit the coalition "temporarily" and withdraw his troops to Jingzhou.

Wen immediately warned him of the serious consequences of his decision. He said, "Governor Tao, you should realize that we cannot back down. We are now riding a tiger and it's hard to dismount. If you quit now, the coalition forces may collapse and the rebels will certainly take their revenge on you. But if one day the emperor regains his power, everyone in the court will then point his finger at you!"

The shilly-shallying Tao was again won over. The two governors then stayed up all night discussing new military plans. Thanks to their renewed determination and improved tactics, the loyal forces finally defeated the rebels. The rule of the Eastern Jin Dynasty continued for another 92 years.

Today, Chinese people often cite this idiom qi2 hu3 nan2 xia4 to describe a dangerous situation from which one finds it difficult to disengage. Or, it may mean someone who has embarked on a path of no return.


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