Sayings and Idioms: 对牛弹琴: Dui Niu Tan Qin

对牛弹琴 : Dui Niu Tan Qin

Translation: Playing the Lute to a Cow

Definition: Having a deep discussion with an ignorant person; Speak to others in a way they can understand; One should consider ones audience when speaking.

Playing the Lute to a Cow,” is an age old Chinese Idiom which hails from the Si Ming Annals of the Eastern Han Dynasty and has many varying interpretations depending on the tone, texture and context of its usage within a conversation. Having understood this basic fact, it becomes very clear how at first reaction one may consider this idiom as an insult towards others, but upon deeper analysis we can realise that this idiom is by no means an insult, but instead is aimed towards the pure goal of every conversation, which is to have both parties not only explain but also be understood clearly.

The fable behind, “ Playing the lute to a cow,” goes as follows.

In the Eastern Han Dynasty, there was once a famouchinese-confuciuss Buddhist scholar who was renowned throughout the land as being the most widely learnt Scholar on all matters concerning Buddhism. As a result of this, he was sought out by many scholars and learnt individuals of many different schools and teaching in order to explain the practices and beliefs of Buddhism. On one such occasion the famed Buddhist scholar was explaining Buddhism to a collection of 儒家学者(Ru Jia) Confucian scholars but during the conversation, the confucian scholars realised that for every question asked the Buddhist scholar would respond not by drawing examples from Buddhism, but instead by drawing examples from Confucian Doctrines such as Lun Yu (论语) and Shang Shu (尚书). This perplexed the Confucian scholars and they asked him as to why he answered their questions in such a manner. This was his response.

“I an aware that you are all very well versed in Confucian scriptures and are relatively ignorant of Buddhist ones. If I were to directly use Buddhist scriptures to answer your questions, would that not equate to simply talking to myself?”

niu“In ancient times there was an extremely accomplished musician called Gong Ming Yi. Gong Ming Yi had extraordinary musical ability and his mastery of the lute was unrivalled. One day, as he was walking in a sunny meadow he happened across a cow chewing on its cud. Gong Ming Yi was so moved by this scene, that he took out his lute and began to serenade the cow with some of the most beloved and well known classics. He chose the most graceful pieces, to encourage deep thoughts and honest introspection, and he played them with such a mastery that it brought tears to his very own eyes. The cow however, was not moved in the slightest, and continued to chew on its cud, paying no attention at all to the masterful music.”

“At first, Gong Ming Yi was incensed, but after he calmed down and deeply thought upon the matter he realised that it wasn’t that the cow had not heard his music, but instead that the cow had no scale by which to understand the grace and delicacy of the sound. Having understood this, Gong Ming Yi proceeded to play another piece. A piece which when compared to his previous one was not as graceful, or as delicate, but to the ears of the cow, it was something familiar. The cow stopped eating, and looked around as if hearing the sounds of frogs and insects, finally focusing its full attention on the lute and its musician. The problem wasn’t that Gong Ming Yi played one piece more masterfully that the other, for both pieces were flawlessly executed, but instead that the first piece even while being “more graceful” by human standards, held no importance at all to the cow and thus the cow could not understand it.”

The famous Buddhist scholar concluded by saying,” The reason I use Confucian scriptures in order to explain Buddhist beliefs is the same as the musician playing his lute to the cow.”


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