The Chinese idiom 守株待兔 (shǒu zhū dài tù) literally means “keeping watch at the tree awaiting a rabbit.”
It is used to describe someone waiting foolishly for a most unlikely windfall instead of doing any work to make it happen, or sitting back and hoping to profit from others’ efforts.
The idiom originated from a story in the book Han Feizi(1)” (“韓非子”) written by Han Fei (ca. 281–233 B.C.), who was one of the early legalist philosophers in China.
In the state of Song, during the Spring & Autumn period (770–476 B.C.), there lived a farmer who had a tree in his field. Whenever he was tired from working, he would rest under the tree.
One day, while he was working in his field, a panic-stricken rabbit suddenly ran past him, crashed blindly into the tree and died, having broken its neck.
The farmer happily picked up the rabbit, planning to take it home for a delicious rabbit stew dinner.
From then on, he abandoned his plow and no longer worked in his field. He waited by the tree hoping that another rabbit would run into it and die.
However, it did not happen again and the farmer became an object of ridicule. He ended up with nothing and his fields lay fallow and bare.
The Chinese idiom “keeping watch at the tree awaiting a rabbit” is similar to the English expression “waiting for something to fall into one’s lap.” It implies that someone relies on luck or wishes to gain without pain (effort).
- The book contains 55 chapters detailing the political philosophy of Han Fei, who was one of the early legalist philosophers in China. It is valuable for its abundance of anecdotes about ancient China of the period.