Last time, in honor of the year of the snake, we learned the expression ‘drawing a snake and adding legs‘, which means to overdo something. Today we are back on “food express” tracks with an expression which also involves drawing but this time of food.
We all know life in China can get difficult at times, especially when it comes to dealing with the authorities in hoping they will help you solve a problem. Many times the suggested solution is more frustrating than the actual problem, because you know in your heart it’s not a real solution, it’s just a distraction. It is in times like these that today’s expression comes in handy.
画饼充饥 is an ancient Chinese proverb which literally means to draw a cake to solve hunger. First let’s read it character by character:
画 – huà – to draw, a drawing
饼 – bǐng – flat Chinese bread or cake. (see also jian bing)
充 – chōng – to fill
饥 – jī – famine, hungry (archaic)
Like many ancient Chinese proverb it has a short story behind it with a moral to be learn. The story for this one goes pretty much like this:
In the period of Three Kingdoms, there was a man called Lú Yù (卢毓) who was an official at the kingdom of Wei. He was orphaned at a young age and he didn’t have any patrons or connections. Nonetheless, he made it all the way up the court on his own by working hard. It was quite unusual at that time because officials were selected regardless of their actual achievements, but based on reputation and recommendations only. People took advantage of that recruitment system and the emperor wasn’t satisfied with most of his officials, but he did like Lu Yu because he was capable and always had good advise. He decided to appoint Lu Yu with the task of recruitment and told specifically not to rely on reputation because reputation is as useless as a drawing of a cake – it looks tasty but you can’t feed off of it. It is said that Lu Yu suggested to hold a test to find the best candidates and thus a new system was born.
The figurative meaning of this expression is to take useless measures when trying to solve a problem, or to comfort oneself with illusions. I tried to find a similar expression in English but came up empty. I did come across another interesting expression – The Barmecide’s Feast. Its origin is a tale from ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ about a rich man who invited a beggar for a feast but served him nothing. You can read more about it here.
Here’s a short cartoon for kids about this expression if you wanna learn how to pronounce it:
Just remember, you can draw your cake and have it too…