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A Match of Wits

Let's learn some Chinese idioms about Zhuge Liang!


A Match of Wits

Let's learn some Chinese idioms about Zhuge Liang!


If you ask the Chinese who is the most intelligent person in China, the answer is very likely to be Zhuge Liang, prime minister of the state of Shu during the Three Kingdoms period. The greatness of this statesman, strategist, and scholar has made the name Zhuge Liang—even just the surname Zhuge—synonymous with intelligence in Chinese culture. When people praise someone for being smart, they often just say, “that’s our Zhuge”.

The wisdom of Zhuge Liang was popularized by the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels, written by Luo Guanzhong of the Ming Dynasty. In it, Zhuge Liang is described to perform fantastical (if not strictly intellectual) achievements such as summoning advantageous winds in battle. Many stories about Zhuge Liang, not all confirmed by history, have been passed down through the generations, and some evolved into popular idioms that people use in daily life.

So without further ado:


三个臭皮匠,顶个诸葛亮  Three cobblers are equal to one Zhuge Liang

Similar to the expression “Two heads are better than one,” this proverb says that if three cobblers work together, they could be as smart as Zhuge Liang. But how did a cobbler become a unit of intelligence? Actually, the original saying was that “Three vice-generals are equal to one Zhuge Liang”. Because “vice-generals” (裨将, píjiàng) has the same pronunciation as “cobbler” (皮匠, píjiàng), the saying has been mangled as it spread over time. You can use this phrase if you want to start a brainstorm session with a group of people, but be careful—you have to humbly include yourself among the cobblers, or it sounds like you’re insulting the others’ intelligence.



Zánmen yídìng néng xiǎng chū bànfa de! Sān gè chòu píjiàng, dǐng gè Zhūgě Liàng.

We can certainly figure out a way! Three cobblers are equal to one Zhuge Liang!


事后诸葛亮 Zhuge Liang after the fact

Though Chinese people love Zhuge Liang, not every idiom with his name in it has a positive meaning. “Zhuge Liang after the event” is the Chinese version of the “Monday-morning quarterback”. No matter the culture, people create terms to refer to those who always say how they would have done something better or differently in hindsight. So, if someone comes to you with some blindingly obvious advice after the fact,  you can just call them “事后诸葛亮(shìhòu Zhūgě Liàng)”.


既生瑜,何生亮 Since (Zhou) Yu was born, Why did (Zhuge) Liang have to be born too?

These were the last words of the famed military general and strategist Zhou Yu in Romance of the Three Kingdoms (just in the novel,  not in actual history). Zhou Yu, who worked for the Kingdom of Wu, was a rival of Zhuge Liang. Zhou kept trying to outwit Zhuge but never succeeded. After a lifetime of having his military plans foiled by Zhuge, finally, after a serious defeat, Zhou became so enraged that it caused one of his arrow wounds to reopen, which led to his death. Before he died, Zhou lamented the cruel cosmic joke that caused his great rival to be born in the same era as himself. Due to the popularity of the novel, almost every individual in China knows this proverb, and it is used to comment on someone who keeps losing to the same opponent.

Imagine, for example, Lex Luthor lamenting that Superman didn’t arrive a lifetime later and you get the drift.


A: 这是李雷的第五个亚军了,他真的赢不了韩梅梅。

This is the fifth time that Li Lei’s become the runner-up. He just can’t beat Han Meimei.

Zhè shì Lǐ Léi de dì wǔ gè yàjūn le, tā zhēnde yíng bù liǎo Hán Méiméi.


Shì a, jì shēng yú, hé shēng liàng.

Yeah, Since (Zhou) Yu was born, why did (Zhuge) Liang have to be born too?


一时瑜亮 Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang of the same era

A similar idiom involving Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang is “一时瑜亮 (Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang of the same time)”, but it refers to “two equally outstanding contemporaries”. In this case, it doesn’t emphasize who is better between Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang, but just focuses on how well-matched their talents are.


For the past ten years, [athletic rivals] Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei have been the “Zhouyu and Zhuge Liang of the same era” in the badminton world.

Zài guòqù shí nián lǐ, Lín Dān hé Lǐ Zōngwéi zài yǔmáoqiú jiè kānchēng yì shí yú liàng.



诸葛亮吊孝 Zhuge Liang mourns for Zhou Yu

Zhou Yu just can’t catch a break: he couldn’t dissociate himself from Zhuge Liang even after he died . In Three Kingdoms, after Zhou’s death (caused by Zhuge Liang himself), Zhuge went to his funeral ceremony and cried. The story stopped there, but wagging tongues did not. In later history, some people believed that Zhuge felt sad because he lost a great rival, while others people thought he was there to mock Zhou Yu one last time. So “Zhuge Liang mourns for Zhou Yu” means expressing sadness that is not sincere, like “shedding crocodile tears”.



Bié bèi tā de gùzuò zītài piàn le, tā zhè shì Zhūgě Liàng diàoxiào éryǐ.

Don’t be fooled by his actions. It’s just “Zhuge Liang mourning Zhou Yu.”


诸葛亮斩马谡 Zhuge Liang executes Ma Su

Ma Su was one of Zhuge’s favorite subordinates. They had a very close bond and Zhuge treated him as a student. But, in the Romance of Three Kingdoms, Zhuge had to execute Ma because Ma made some serious mistakes in an important battle, which led to a severe defeat. Since Ma had signed a military pledge (an army officer’s agreement with his superior, accepting severely punished if he can not successfully carry out a mission for which he has volunteered), Zhuge had no choice but to kill him according to their agreement. After a considerable inner struggle, Zhuge finally gave the order in tears. Thus, “Zhuge Liang executes Ma Su” became an idiom, meaning that someone must impartially treat those they are close to (usually in a punitive way) for the greater good.


A: He fired his brother-in-law?His wife will be very upset!

Tā kāichú le tā xiǎojiùzi? Ta lǎopo yídìng huì fābiāo de!


B: Zhuge Liang executes Ma Su—as a boss, that’s something you have to do!

Zhūgě Liàng zhǎn Mǎ Sù bei—shēnwéi lǎobǎn, nǐ bìxū děi zhème zuò!




Cover Image from blog.sina.com.cn