Chinese Idioms: Keep One Side of the Net Open (網開一面)

Wǎng Kāi Yī Miàn

Around 1766 B.C., the last ruler of the Xia Dynasty was extremely tyrannical and dissolute. This created great resentment in the people.

In order to save people from suffering, Tang took the lead to overthrow the tyrant and then established the Shang Dynasty (1600–1066 B.C.).

While Tang was the chief of the Shang tribe, he was very popular among his people for his compassion and mercy for all living beings.

One day, while Tang was walking in the countryside, he came upon a man catching birds with a large net spread out like a cage and mumbling: “Come on, birds! Whether flying high or low, east or west, just come into my net! All of you!

Tang stopped and told the man that his method was ruthless as he spared no birds with his net, and that he should leave at least one side open.

Tang cut the net down on three sides then murmured in a light voice: “Oh, birds! Fly to the left or right as you like. And if you’re really tired of your life, come into this net!”

All the people, including the man who had set the net, were moved by Tang’s mercy toward the birds. They realized he was a great person and that he must be even more merciful to human beings.

The news quickly spread far and wide. When the chiefs of the other tribes heard about this, they pledged allegiance to Tang as they believed he would be a very good king.

Tang received support from more than 40 tribes, which made a very good foundation for him to end the tyranny of the Xia Dynasty, and he became the founder of the Shang Dynasty.

From this story came the idiom 網開一面 (wǎng kāi yī miàn), which literally means to keep one side of the net open. Originally, the idiom read 網開三面 (wǎng kāi sān miàn), which is to leave three sides of the net open.

It is now used to indicate one’s mercy by giving a wrong-doer a way out or allowing someone a chance to mend his or her ways.

This story about Tang was recorded in Volume III of the great Chinese historical book Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian(1).


  1. The “Records of the Grand Historian” covers more than 2,000 years of Chinese history, from the Yellow Emperor (2600 B.C.) to the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (87 B.C.) and was written by the great Chinese historian Sima Qian. He is considered the father of Chinese historiography for his work.