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How a 3-Inch Tongue Defeated a King

Jul. 13, 2018

HSK 3 quiz

Chinese idioms are important culturally and persevere through time because of their prevalence in everyday life. Recently, you may have read about Chinese idioms such as “一溜烟 (yí liù yān) quick as lightning” or “掩耳盗铃 (Yăn’ĕr dàolíng) to cover one’s ears when he steals.” Well, “三寸不烂之舌 (Sān cùn bú làn zhī shé) three inch tongue”, is no exception. It is similar to the English adage, “the pen is mightier than the sword” and essentially means that someone has the power to change things with their persuasive way of speaking. “三寸不烂之舌 (Sān cùn bú làn zhī shé) three inch tongue”, is an idiom that reveals an epoch within Chinese history. The following story explains how this idiom may have started.

It is said to have originated during the Period of Warring States. Legend has it that at one point, the capital of Zhao was surrounded by soldiers from the state of Qin. The king of Zhao dispatched Ping Yuanjun to request assistance from the state of Chu. Ping Yuanjun decided to choose 20 men to accompany him.

After he picked 19 men, he couldn’t decide on the last man to join him. A man named Mao Sui volunteered to be the 20th person. Although Ping was not particularly impressed with Mao Sui’s personality and demeanor he hesitantly allowed him to come along.

Mao Sui was a plain-looking man, but he had a skill no one was aware of. Once they arrived at Chu, Mao Sui and the other 19 followers talked about state affairs. Mao Sui conveyed his thoughts logically and with precision. It was discovered just how persuasive and knowledgeable Mao Sui actually was.

After long delegations Ping Yuanjun and the King of Chu failed to come to a satisfactory agreement. As the tension grew, Mao Sui insisted on approaching the King of Chu to put his persuasive charm to work. He ascended aggressively, with his hand poised and ready on the hilt of his sword. Annoyed by his gesture, the King of Chu impatiently dismissed the stranger. Yet Mao Sui persisted, and while asserting his presence he proclaimed, “Your Majesty dares to be rude to me in the presence of my commander since you have millions of soldiers at your side. But now your life is in my hands and your soldiers cannot protect you.”

Mao Sui continued his tirade and reasoned with the King to the best of his abilities. The King of Chu was touched by Mao Sui’s words, and thus he signed a treaty with Ping Yuanjun. Therefore, the mission to combine Chu’s forces to enable them to fight against Qin was a success. Once they returned to Zhao, Ping Yuanjun conveyed appreciation of Mao Sui’s contribution to the treaty and he proclaimed how he would never underestimate another man’s potential.

Since that day, Mao Sui’s three-inch tongue was known as being more powerful than the presence of a million soldiers. Thus the popular Chinese phrase “a three-inch tongue” has come to mean that someone is very eloquent and persuasive in his speech and has the power to change the course of actions.

三寸不烂之舌 (Sān cùn bú làn zhī shé): an idiom; a glib tongue; smooth talk.

Let’s break it down:

三 (Sān): num., three; several times.

寸 (Cùn): n., inch; linear measure.

不 (): adv., no; negative prefix.

烂 (Làn): adj., rotten; spoiled; decayed.

之 (Zhī): aux., marks preceding phrase as modifier of following phrase.

舌 (Shé): n., tongue.


Píng wǒ de sān cùn bú làn zhī shé, yídìng néng shuōfú tā lái bāngmáng.
With my silver tongue, I can persuade him to help.

Xiǎo wáng yòng tā de sān cùn bú làn zhī shé shuōfú xiǎo lǐ fàngqì tā de fēngkuáng jìhuà.
Xiao Wang used his silver tongue to persuade Xiao Li to give up his crazy plan.

HSK 3 quiz

1. Read the Chinese sentence below and answer the question.

Tā shàng le yǎnjiǎng tái, píng zhe sān cùn bú làn zhī shé, shuō de tīngzhòng yìzhí diǎntóu.

Which of the following statements is true?

A. He was ridiculed by the audience.
B. His eloquence was excellent and convinced the audience.
C. He was hesitant to speak, and was not well spoken at all.

See Answer Analysis

—Written by Julia Liu—
Julia Liu teaches Chinese with eChineseLearning. She has been successfully teaching for 5 years and loves reading and practices her passion of drawing in her free time.

Learn More Interesting Chinese Idioms:
Chinese Idiom: 纸上谈兵 Armchair Strategy
Chinese Idiom: 得寸进尺 If You Give Someone an Inch, They Will Take a Mile
Chinese Idiom: 对牛弹琴 To Play the Harp to A Cow

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Chinese Popular Words (Fun Stuff) 

HSK Test

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