Chinese Idioms: Stories from the Ming Dynasty

The term for “two-faced” or “double-dealing" (两面派 ) evolved from the story about the two-sided signs. (Image:  pixabay  /  CC0 1.0)
The term for “two-faced” or “double-dealing" (两面派 ) evolved from the story about the two-sided signs. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Double-dealing

Near the end of the Yuan Dynasty, the Yuan army and the rebel army, which contained the future rulers of the Ming Dynasty, were locked in armed struggle on the north shore of the Yellow River.

The people living around that region were quite miserable, for they had to deal with both factions. The frugal people living in the town of Huaiqing came up with a solution.

They painted a thin layer of wood to use as a sign. One side said “Welcome Yuan Army, Protectors of the People” to appease the ruling army; the other side said “Get Rid of the Yuan Barbarians and Take Back China”, which was meant to encourage the rebels.

When rebel General Chang Yuchun led his troops to Huaiqing, he saw every household had hung a colorful wooden sign on the door to welcome his army, and he was rather happy.

However, when a sudden gust of wind blew, some of the signs turned over and revealed the other side. Thus, Chang Yuchun ordered that everyone in a household with a two-sided sign be executed.

So the term for “two-faced” or “double-dealing (两面派)” evolved from the above story about the two-sided signs.

“Exposing Ma’s feet (露出馬腳)” has come to mean “revealing the true nature of a matter.” (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

“Exposing Ma’s feet (露出馬腳)” has come to mean “revealing the true nature of a matter.” (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Exposing Ma’s feet

When looking for a wife, Zhu Yuanzhang, who became the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty, picked a young lady named Ma, who was also a commoner like himself at the time.

This young woman had unbound natural feet, which was taboo. When Zhu became emperor, he thought his wife had contributed to his success, so he made her the first Empress of the Ming Dynasty.

After she received such a favor, Empress Ma was very careful and never allowed her big feet to extend outside her gown. One day, she was feeling good and wanted to take a trip outside the palace by sedan chair, a type of human-powered carriage.

Suddenly, a gust of wind blew and lifted the carriage’s curtain. At that moment, people caught sight of Queen Ma’s two big feet.

Since then, “Ma’s feet (馬腳)” has come to mean “true nature.” And “exposing Ma’s feet (露出馬腳)” has come to mean “revealing the true nature of a matter.”

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