Chinese Idioms — A Cunning Rabbit Has Three Burrows

The well-known idiom "a cunning rabbit has three burrows" originates from the story of Feng Xuan, a retainer of Lord Mengchang of the Qi state during the Warring States period. Feng Xuan helped Lord Mengchang create three secure locations, allowing him to navigate the complexities of the era and achieve a prosperous and safe life. This idiom is often used to describe someone who plans carefully and thinks ahead. 

Original article: 狡兔三窟

Chinese Idioms — A Cunning Rabbit Has Three Burrows

The idiom "a cunning rabbit has three burrows," derived from an episode during the Warring States period, originates from Feng Xaun, an advisor to Lord Mengchang of the Qi state. Feng Xaun devised three secure locations for Lord Mengchang to find refuge, ensuring his safety during times of political turmoil. Just as a rabbit eludes pursuers by having multiple hideouts, Feng Xaun's strategy illustrated the importance of foresight and strategic thinking for individuals.

 (Please be patient, as the story below is a bit lengthy.)

Chinese Idioms — A Cunning Rabbit Has Three Burrows

Rabbits are highly sensitive and timid creatures, naturally categorized as prey animals. Their dwelling places are not fixed; they can rest comfortably in makeshift shelters like piles of grass, depressions in the ground, or existing burrows, as long as conditions are suitable. To evade danger, rabbits often choose several burrows or different locations as their shelter options. Their agile movements and heightened alertness have led people to refer to them as "cunning rabbits."

In ancient Chinese mythology, there is a tale of a rabbit preparing medicine on the moon.
In the mythological tale, after Chang'e's journey to the moon, the Jade Rabbit on the moon has been accompanying her ever since. Over time, this Jade Rabbit gradually transformed into a deity associated with dispelling plagues, known as the "Rabbit God," overseeing the prevention of calamities, illnesses, and even homosexual love.

Following the conquest of Shang by King Wu of Zhou, the practice of enfeoffing same-clan relatives, meritorious subjects, and nobles of the Shang dynasty began. This gave rise to the establishment of various feudal states, with the purpose of "enfeoffing the vassals as a protective screen for the Zhou dynasty." The allocation of lands to family members, loyal subjects, and prominent figures was intended to ensure their allegiance to the Zhou dynasty, maintain royal authority, and facilitate the collection of taxes.  This situation persisted until the invasion of the Quanrong tribes (an ethnic group of that time) who captured Haojing (present-day Xi'an, Shaanxi), the capital of the Western Zhou dynasty, and killed King You of Zhou, marking the end of the Western Zhou dynasty.

The vassal lords chose Ji Yijiu as King Ping of Zhou, who, to evade the invasion of the Quanrong, relocated the capital to Luoyi (present-day Luoyang, Henan). The Spring and Autumn period of the Eastern Zhou dynasty began from then on.
Consequently, various major vassals began to declare themselves kings, intensifying conflicts and battles among each other. In pursuit of expanding territories and asserting dominance, as well as safeguarding themselves from extinction, even the weaker vassals resorted to all means to survive.  

Later on, the State of Jin was divided among the noble families of Han, Zhao, and Wei, known as the "Partition of Jin among the Three Families." King Weilie of Zhou could only comply with these appointments, designating Wei Si, Zhao Ji, and Han Qian as vassal lords. This marked the beginning of the Warring States period, during which the Zhou dynasty had weakened to the point where it was no longer superior to the vassals. The vassal lords each governed their own territories and vied for supremacy, plunging the people of various states into dire circumstances, sacrificing lives due to the conflicts.
During that time, wealth was largely concentrated in the hands of kings, princes, and nobles across the realm. In their pursuit of political or social advancement, the noble offspring spared no effort to attract talents and experts from all corners, seeking their counsel, sending them as emissaries, and even sacrificing their lives during critical moments. Among their entourage, some possessed genuine knowledge and skills, aligning with them to seek progress, while others merely rode on their reputations, swindling and seeking only basic sustenance. 

One of the "Four Lords of the Warring States," Lord Mengchang (of the State of Qi), boasted a retinue of three thousand attendants, among whom Feng Xuan was a member.  One day, Lord Mengchang announced to his retinue that he needed someone to collect taxes from the Xue region (Lord Mengchang's fiefdom, present-day Tengzhou in Shandong province).
Feng Xuan volunteered for the task. Intrigued, Lord Mengchang inquired about him, and his attendant replied, "He's the one who often sings, 'Long sword! Shall we not return?'"
Lord Mengchang chuckled and said, "This guest indeed possesses talent. I have underestimated him. I haven't met him before; please invite him." 

Before departing, Feng Xuan asked Lord Mengchang what he should bring back after collecting the taxes.
Lord Mengchang replied, "Buy whatever we lack at home."
Upon reaching the Xue region, Feng Xuan gathered all the taxpayers, verified their vouchers, and then falsely claimed to have received orders from Lord Mengchang to burn all the tax vouchers, thus exempting the people from all tax obligations. The crowd cheered in joy and gratitude to Lord Mengchang.

This event later became known as the "Incident of Burning Tax Vouchers for Justice."

Afterward, Feng Xuan returned to Qi and promptly sought an audience with Lord Mengchang. 
Surprised, Lord Mengchang asked, "Why have you returned so soon? What have you brought back?" 
Feng Xuan replied, "My lord instructed, 'Buy whatever we lack at home.' Reflecting on it, you possess treasures in the palace, stables filled with horses, and a multitude of beautiful women in your court. Yet, there's a lack of 'justice' in your home. So, I purchased 'justice' for you." 
Curious, Lord Mengchang asked, "What does it mean to buy 'justice,' and what is its use?" 
Feng Xuan explained, "You currently only possess your fiefdom in Xue. If you merely pursue tax revenue without compassion for the people, you will struggle to win their hearts.
Although displeased, Lord Mengchang recognized the truth.   

A year later, King Min of Qi deposed Lord Mengchang on the grounds that he did not want to retain ministers from the previous king's reign. Lord Mengchang returned to the Xue region disheartened. To his surprise, as he neared his fiefdom, he found people of all ages greeting him along the road. Lord Mengchang turned to Feng Xuan and said, "I finally see the 'justice' that you bought for me." 

Feng Xuan continued, "A clever rabbit has three burrows, enabling it to evade hunters and avoid death in times of peril. Now you have one burrow, but you still cannot rest easy. Please allow me to dig two more for you." With that, Lord Mengchang granted Feng Xuan fifty chariots and five hundred pounds of gold...  Feng Xuan went to meet King Hui of Liang and said, "The State of Qi has sent back its esteemed minister Lord Mengchang. With his reputation and abilities, whichever country extends its welcome to Lord Mengchang first will undoubtedly prosper." 

As a result, King Hui of Liang then reassigned the former prime minister to the position of Grand General, vacating the prime ministerial role. He sent envoys carrying a thousand pounds of gold and a hundred chariots to travel to the Xue region to formally invite Lord Mengchang as the new prime minister. However, Feng Xaun had already informed Lord Mengchang beforehand that he must decline the offer from the envoys. This was because the extravagant display of a thousand pounds of gold and a hundred chariots would create a significant commotion in the Qi state. The emissaries from the State of Liang made three futile trips, as they were repeatedly met with rejection by Lord Mengchang.

Chinese Idioms — A Cunning Rabbit Has Three Burrows

Upon learning of this, King Min of Qi sent his Grand Preceptor (his teacher) with a thousand pounds of gold and two colorfully adorned horse-drawn carriages (a display of respect) to deliver to Lord Mengchang. He also included a short sword for personal use and a sealed personal letter, expressing, "How foolish I have been (in self-deprecation). I was entrapped by flattery and sycophancy, which led to offending you and endangering our ancestral temples. Considering the virtue of our forefathers and the well-being of our family and state, I earnestly implore you to return and guide our people once more."  Feng Xuan once again advised Lord Mengchang to make a request. He demanded that King Min relocate the state's ancestral temple (a sacred and heavily guarded location) to the Xue region and send the ritual implements for ancestral worship. 

After King Min relocated the ancestral temple to the Xue region, Feng Xuan reported, "The three burrows are now complete, and you can rest assuredly as a prime minister."  From then on, during his decades-long tenure as Prime Minister of Qi, Lord Mengchang did not encounter any further adversity. This achievement owed much to Feng Xuan's "A Cunning Rabbit Has Three Burrows" strategy.

Embarking on a daily idiom journey bestows upon us the gift of eloquence and erudition in our conversations.

  • To evade misfortune and disperse risks, adopting the strategy of ''A Cunning Rabbit Has Three Burrows'' proves to be a wise approach.
  • ''A Cunning Rabbit Has Three Burrows'' represents a survival technique honed by rabbits to evade the pursuit of hunters.
  • By consistently engaging in various forms of learning and preparation, akin to the rabbit's approach, we can deftly escape perilous situations, employing the wisdom of ''A Cunning Rabbit Has Three Burrows''.

Written by Bubu
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