An elaborate schemer may be hoisted by his own petard

Zhang Ciyun
The best-laid plans oft go astray: One failure is unfortunate; a double loss can be calamitous.
Zhang Ciyun

People sometimes offer small bait to lure others into a gambit, thinking they will reap bigger gains later. However, when things go awry, they may not only fail to attain their goal but lose the bait as well.

Chinese people have two idioms to describe such a failure.

The first one says touji bucheng shibami, which means literally “trying to steal a rooster only to end up losing the rice.”


tōu jī bù chéng shí bǎ mǐ

The saying originates in a folk story about two hooligans who failed to steal a big rooster from a rich villager’s home and lose the handfuls of rice used as bait to capture the bird.

It’s just like the English saying: “Many go out for wool and come home shorn.”

The other expression, peile furen youzhebing, or “giving one’s enemy a wife and also losing his own men,” derives from the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” a popular novel written in the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).


péi le fū rén yòu zhé bīng

In the story, Zhou Yu, a famous military strategist serving in the State of Wu in eastern China, wanted to recapture a major stronghold seized by the rival State of Shu. He hatched a plot to invite the Shu ruler to come to his place to marry the sister of the Wu king.

Zhou’s plan was to seize the Shu ruler as a hostage and then force him to give back the stronghold.

However, in the end, the Shu ruler managed to escape with his bride and also killed numbers of Zhou’s men who ran into a trap while pursuing the escapees.

Today, this saying is still used to ridicule a strategy that produces a double loss.

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