Chinese Idioms: Behind the Times (不合時宜)

By David Wu, Epoch Times
February 7, 2015 Updated: July 6, 2018

The Chinese idiom 不合時宜 (bù hé shí yí), which translates as “behind the times,” is used to describe a person or something not conforming to the commonly accepted standards, in lack of good taste, or not suited to the current need. It originated from the Book of Han (1) in writings about Emperor Ai.

Emperor Ai (27 B.C.–1 B.C.) was adopted by Emperor Cheng, who had no child of his own. He succeeded to the throne when he was 20 years old. Once he became emperor, he was often sick.

Xia Heliang was one of Emperor Ai’s counselors and liked to use magical methods. He knew the emperor was very kind of heart, though poor in health. In order to impress the emperor, Xia offered him a prophecy.

“The reason your foster father, Emperor Cheng, had no children was because he did not comply with destiny. Now, Your Majesty, you have been sick for a long time and there have been too many disasters happening one after the other,” Xia told him.

“All of these are warnings from Heaven. The only way for you to achieve longevity, have sons, and avoid calamities is to rename the period of your reign. People will suffer continuously if you do not do this.”

In order to have better health and alleviate the people’s suffering, the emperor took Xia’s advice and changed the name of his reign and gave amnesty to all.

Two months passed. Nothing changed and the emperor was still sick. The emperor began to wonder if Xia’s words were reliable. Upon investigation, he discovered that Xia and his followers were a group of liars who swindled people.

Emperor Ai was quite angry. He issued an imperial edict, which read: “With the hope of bringing peace to my people, I mistakenly took Xia’s advice, but what he foresaw did not manifest. What Xia said violated destiny and was behind the times. All changes I made based on his advice, except the amnesty, are abolished.”

The period of the new name of the reign lasted only two months, and Xia was executed for heresy.


  1. Book of Han (汉书), also known as the Book of Former Han, contains 12 annals, eight chronological tables, 10 treatises, and 70 biographies of the Western Han from 202 B.C.–A.D.23. The book was finished in A.D. 111, mainly by scholars from the Ban family.