The idiom “replace shields and axes with jade and silks” (“化干戈為玉帛”) is a metaphorical phrase that means to turn from war to peace, or to turn hostility into friendship. It is also used to suggest turning something bad into something good, in general.
There’s a story about the origin of this idiom, recorded in “Yuan Dao Xun” (“原道訓”), the first chapter of the book Huai Nan Zi(1) (“淮南子”).
According to the story, about 4,000 years ago, Gun was the chief of the Xia tribe, one of several tribes affected by the devastating floods of the period, and the father of the Great Yu (2).
In order to defend himself and his people, Gun built an 8-foot-high wall around the city and also dug a moat around the city walls. Many of the tribesmen objected to Gun’s measures and lost faith in him.
When other tribes saw Gun lose the will of his people, they eyed the Xia tribe menacingly and saw this as an opportunity to attack them.
Later, Yu succeeded Gun as chief of the Xia tribe. Having learned much from his father’s mistakes, Yu demolished the city wall, filled up the moat, re-distributed property, destroyed weapons, and taught people ethics.
With an upright moral character, Yu united the people of the different tribes, and managed a cooperative effort on the flood problem.
The Great Yu worked very hard to stop the recurring floods. For 13 years, he led projects to build canals from the major rivers to direct the water out to sea.
Legend says that, during those years, Yu passed by his house three times without going in, which was a sign of his perseverance in his work and concern for his people’s well-being.
In the end, the Great Yu succeeded in stopping the floods and his selfless character won the people’s hearts. The Xia tribe became stable, strong, and wealthy.
Witnessing the peace and happiness of the Xia, other tribes wanted to have the Great Yu as their leader. Tens of thousands of people came to Yu with jade and silks to show their respect and friendship to the Xia tribe.
This is the origin of the idiom huà gān gē wéi yù bó, “replacing shields and axes with jade and silks.” This is similar to the Western saying “beat swords into plowshares.”
- The book “Huai Nan Zi,” compiled in 139 B.C. during the Western Han Dynasty, is a classical text that incorporates Daoist, Confucian, and Legalist philosophies. It has 21 chapters covering the topics of mythology, history, astronomy, geography, philosophy, science, metaphysics, nature, and politics. The first chapter,“Yuan Dao Xun,” is about contemplating the Dao.
- The Great Yu was a descendant of the Yellow Emperor and succeeded Emperor Shun (around 2205 B.C.). Yu was known for his kindness, capabilities, and achievements controlling the constant floods of that time.