Chinese Idiom about Erroneous Means: Adding Firewood to Extinguish the Fire

The example of "adding firewood to extinguish the fire" has been prevalent since ancient times. Especially during the Warring States period, incessant warfare and annexation among states led to dire living conditions for the populace. The fragmented vassal states either formed alliances to avoid attacks or initiated wars to plunder neighboring territories. This resulted in some defeated states resorting to ceding land and seeking peace, yet such a strategy of "adding firewood to extinguish the fire" ultimately led them on a path to demise.


According to historical records from "Strategies of the Warring States - Wei Strategy III," in 273 BC, the states of Zhao and Wei launched an attack on the Han territory of Huayang. Desperately seeking assistance, Han urgently appealed to the state of Qin. King Zhaoxiang of Qin ordered generals such as Bai Qi to lead troops for swift reinforcement. The Qin army marched tirelessly, covering a hundred miles each day to surprise and overwhelm Zhao and Wei. Upon arrival, they launched a sudden and unexpected assault, inflicting a crushing defeat on Zhao and Wei, and slaughtering a hundred and fifty thousand soldiers.

Following the defeat at Huayang, one year later, the King of Wei sought to send General Duan Gan Chong as an envoy to negotiate territorial concessions with the state of Qin.

Sun Chen advised the King of Wei, suggesting that seeking territorial concessions for peace with Qin was not the best solution to address Qin's territorial ambitions towards Wei. He dissected the situation, highlighting that when Wei was defeated, it did not cede territory to Qin. Despite the defeat, this outcome could be considered favorable. Conversely, Qin, despite its victory, did not exploit the situation to demand territorial concessions from Wei, indicating a mistake on Qin's part.

Sun Chen criticized the current advice from the courtiers, who advocated for territorial concessions to Qin one year after the defeat. He argued that this was purely motivated by self-interest, urging the King to discern the situation clearly. Sun Chen pointed out that the one seeking power today was Duan Gan Chong, yet the King appointed him as the envoy to negotiate territorial concessions with Qin. Conversely, it was Qin that desired land, yet the King indulged them by sending an envoy to negotiate territorial concessions for peace.

Chinese Idiom about Erroneous Means: Adding Firewood to Extinguish the Fire

The crux of the matter lies in this: those who seek power must persuade the king to agree to territorial concessions, enabling them to represent the kingdom in negotiations and gain influence. Conversely, those who desire land must exert their authority to compel territorial concessions as a condition for peace, thus acquiring territory. However, Wei's continual recourse to territorial concessions in exchange for peace with Qin is nothing short of inviting destruction upon oneself!

Furthermore, he continued, the treacherous courtiers insist on seeking territorial concessions from Qin. But engaging in territorial concessions for peace is akin to adding fuel to the fire; as long as the fuel is not exhausted, the flames will not cease. Yet the king's territory is finite, while Qin's insatiable appetite knows no bounds. How then can we satisfy them? It's tantamount to attempting to extinguish a fire with wood — a perilous endeavor indeed!

"Adding firewood to extinguish the fire" has been a common practice since ancient times!

The example of "adding firewood to extinguish the fire" has been prevalent since ancient times, especially during the Warring States period when it was rampant. Drawing wisdom from the past to apply to the present, historical instances serve as valuable lessons. During that era, incessant warfare and annexation among states led to dire living conditions for the populace. The fragmented vassal states, in their pursuit of self-aggrandizement and to ward off the covetous gaze of other states, resorted to various means such as forming alliances, waging wars, and seizing territory from others. Consequently, defeated states often sought peace by ceding land, a common phenomenon at the time. Thus, through continuous warfare, Qin eventually unified the six states.

Taking the example of the six states during the Warring States period as a lesson in "adding firewood to extinguish the fire"

We must start by discussing the gradual prosperity and strength of the State of Qin:

Since the appointment of Shang Yang to implement the Legalist reforms by Duke Xiao of Qin in 356 BC, the State of Qin began to gradually prosper.

Over the span of more than a hundred years from Duke Xiao of Qin to King Zheng (better known as Qin Shi Huang, ”First Sovereign Emperor”) reigning, the State of Qin incessantly sent its armies to conquer and plunder other states, causing significant decline and devastation to the strength of the six rival states, leaving them weakened and powerless.

For instance, after the Battle of Chuishi in 301 BC, where the State of Chu faced a coalition force from Qin, Qi, Han, Wei, and Song, the State of Chu began its decline. Following the Battle of Jixi in 284 BC, where the State of Qi was attacked by a coalition force led by the Yan general Lü Yi comprising Yan, Qin, Zhao, Han, and Wei, Qi's power diminished. While the State of Wei experienced a peak of prosperity in the early Warring States period, repeated defeats in their eastern campaigns against Qi, as well as their loss in the Battle of Huayang in 273 BC to Qin, led to a gradual decline, leaving them unable to resist Qin's relentless aggression, ultimately leading to their demise. In 262 BC, the King of Zhao, in a state of lured dimness of intelligence, accepted the offer of Dang County from Han Prefect Feng Ting, triggering Qin's invasion in 260 BC. After the Battle of Changping, the State of Zhao's power dwindled. Meanwhile, neither the State of Han nor the State of Yan ever grew strong enough to contend with the might of the State of Qin.

Chinese Idiom about Erroneous Means: Adding Firewood to Extinguish the Fire

In 236 BC, amidst the inability of the various states to contend with Qin, King Zheng of Qin, under the pretext of aiding the State of Yan, dispatched troops to attack the State of Zhao, thus initiating the prelude to the annexation of the six states. Within a mere fifteen years, Qin successively annexed Han, Zhao, Wei, Chu, and Yan. Finally, in 221 BC, citing Qi's refusal to receive Qin envoys as justification, following the subjugation of the State of Yan, Wang Ben led his forces southward, directly targeting Linzi, the capital of Qi. The Qi army dispersed, King Jian of Qi surrendered after leaving the city, and Qi ceased to exist. With the centuries-long inter-state conflicts and entanglements among the various feudal lords of the Zhou dynasty (Spring and Autumn Period, Warring States Period), this marked the conclusion of an era.

"Adding firewood to extinguish the fire," though it expresses the intention and action of extinguishing a fire, represents an inappropriate method that ultimately exacerbates the issue itself, leading to even greater negative consequences. Through this idiom, let us reflect repeatedly on whether we have employed the correct approaches in handling each problem. Only by applying the right remedy can we effectively resolve issues and turn adversity into prosperity. "Using bronze as a mirror, one can correct their attire; using history as a mirror, one can understand the rise and fall of events; using people as a mirror, one can discern gains and losses." With humility, we should draw wisdom from our predecessors to forge a new path for the modern era.

Reflections on "adding firewood to extinguish the fire ": Is the act of modern people discussing ancient wisdom futile?

Modern individuals often regard ancient wisdom as obsolete, labeling it as "ancient." However, do contemporary individuals reflect on the fact that all present endeavors are built upon the foundation laid by our predecessors? Today's achievements are the result of the diligent efforts of those who came before us. It is through their groundwork that subsequent generations can extrapolate, innovate beyond the old constraints, and thus create opportunities for human advancement. Innovative knowledge, too, emerges from the records and legacies of our predecessors. The endeavors of later generations to inherit and innovate, to break new ground, contribute significantly to the future of humanity, thereby creating a better life for all.

However, every phenomenon undergoes a phased evolutionary process and is inevitably influenced by the constraints of the environment, time, and conditions of the era. We should not dismiss the contributions of our ancestors by simply saying "today is not like the past." Instead, we should strive to understand their contributions with greater humility and objectivity. Assessing superiority, inferiority, excellence, or fallacy often requires a deeper understanding beyond surface-level comparisons or hasty denials.

Once we delve into the origins and development of idioms, we discover that they encapsulate condensed fragments of history. Beyond their captivating narratives, they harbor profound allegorical meanings.

  • When one makes a mistake, they shouldn't "add firewood to extinguish the fire" by seeking more excuses to cover it up.
  • When cooking, if faced with a grease fire, "adding firewood to extinguish the fire" by sprinkling water will only worsen the situation. Instead, one should cover the pot or use a damp cloth to put out the fire.
  • The approach of "adding firewood to extinguish the fire" will only exacerbate the problem.

Written by Bubu
Sponsored by Mei-Hua Hall