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Words From Ancient China

The Chinese idiom 貪小失大 (tān xiǎoshī dà) refers to “suffering big losses due to greed over small gains” and this is a popular saying from ancient China.

The idiom originates from the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.) of the Eastern Zhou (770-221 B.C.), the second part of the Zhou Dynasty.

General Yue Yi of the state of Yan led the joint forces of Yan and several other states to attack the state of Qi , which at that time was ruled by the brutal King Min.

The king of Qi sent General Chu Zi to lead the army to resist the attack, but the Qi army was greatly outnumbered and Chu Zi was deeply troubled.

Words from Ancient China yan state coins
Yan State knife money. (Image: Neo-Jay via wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

When Chu Zi approached the king about the situation, the king responded by humiliating and threatening him, forcing him to go to battle. Chu Zi reluctantly went to battle and purposely let the Qi army suffer defeat, while he took the opportunity to flee.

The state of Qi then sent another general, Da Zi, to lead the remnants of the army.

Stationed at the gate of the Qi capital, Da Zi asked the king for bonuses in gold in order to boost the morale of the troops. However, not only did the king refuse, he also angrily cursed the general as being foolish, weak, and incompetent.

As a result, Da Zi and his troops were defeated in their battle with the Yan army. Not only was Da Zi killed, the king was also forced to flee, while the Yan army took possession of all of the gold in the Qi treasury.

The words from ancient China “suffering big losses due to greed over small gains” can be likened to the English saying “penny wise, pound foolish.”

It is used to advise people not to covet and pursue small things while being wasteful and extravagant in important matters, overlooking what is worthwhile and valuable in the bigger picture. These words from ancient China are as true today as in ancient times.

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