Learn a Chinese Idiom: Blind Men Stroke the Elephant

By Ben Hedges, NTDTV
May 13, 2016 Updated: May 13, 2016

Today we are going to look at a traditional Chinese 4-character saying or Chengyu, 盲人摸象

Blind men stroke the elephant.

The story behind this chengyu is found in the nirvana sutra or 涅槃經 so it is thought to have originated in India.

In the sutra there is a story about a king who is chatting with some blind men, they don’t know what an elephant is, so he has an elephant brought over and all the blind men touch different parts of it. Here is a translation of what happens…

其觸牙者,即言象形如萊茯根(蘿蔔);其觸耳者,言象如箕;其觸頭者,言象如石;其觸鼻者,言象如杵;其觸腳者,言象如木臼;其觸脊者,言象如床;其觸腹者,言象如甕;其觸尾者,言象如繩。

The one who felt it’s tusks said the elephant was the shape of a carrot, the one who felt its ear said that the elephant was like a big but shallow bamboo basket, the one that felt its head said that the elephant was like a rock, the one that felt its trunk said it was like a wooden club, the one that felt the elephant’s leg said it was like a pillar, the one that felt its back said the elephant was like a bed, the one that felt its belly said it was like a urn, and the one that felt its tail said that it was like a rope.

So this chengyu basically describes how people will describe something differently when they come into contact with it from different angles or we could say see it from different perspectives. Obviously the original story is a metaphor for buddhist monks having different understandings on their path to enlightenment, but we can apply this chengyu to other situations in everyday life too.

Such as to describe scientists all coming up with different theories about how the universe was created, it is such a vast thing and such a long time ago trying to understand it is like 盲人摸象 none are really correct.

Perhaps you are trying to understand something that is too complex for you and are concerned you will have a misunderstanding, you could say I don’t want to make the mistake of being a blind man stroking an elephant, 我不要犯盲人摸象的錯誤

So basically it is when you can’t fully understand something because it is too complex or vast and you only understand it from one angle or multiple people understand it from different angles and all come up with different answers, but an this is crucial for this cheng yu, the understanding that you or multiple people have is always a bit wrong, a bit off. Like the blind man who thought the tail was a rope, it’s kind of like a rope in appearance, but it’s actually not a rope and is part of a much bigger thing, an elephant.

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