Category Archives: Lexicons

Vocabularies from different languages


Almost everyone around the world have been quarantined at home, and it’s a perfect time to brush up your skillsets. Let’s take a look at this word, 硏磨 (to grind, study, or research). 硏 refers to an inkstone, which is a flat stone. What do you normally do with an inkstone? It’s used to grind ink. Once ink is ground and contained, you would write with it. Writing is associated with studying and researching, therefore you have a process from grinding of ink to writing, where you would be studying or researching, so we have all of these meanings associated with this character 硏.

With 磨 (to grind or rub), we have a compound of 麻 (hemp) and 石 (stone). So, the character was for an act of using a stone-based tool to soften or decorticate hemp stalks. It was done by either grinding or crushing the stalks, so we have both of these meanings associated with this character. When an object is either grinded or pounded, it wears out and it can even disappear eventually. So, 磨 can also mean suffering, being worn down, or disappearing after being worn down.

Combining above meanings we can think of the meaning of 硏磨 as an act of studying and researching until the subject (who would be studying and researching) would disappear from being worn down so much. We can associate a degree of pain with such an act, and there is a sense of constant repetition. Therefore, there can’t be 硏磨 without difficulties and repetition. Such process is needed in order to improve our skills and talents.

Even in English, the informal use of the word grind is associated with working or studying laboriously. So, it’s interesting to see that we have such commonalities both in the East and the West.

Update and English translation by Michael Han (


Many people set New Year’s resolutions, but it isn’t easy to follow them through ’til the end of the year. Why is that? It’s because people aren’t determined enough to put that much effort into it. Why do so many find it difficult to put that effort in? It’s because they are anxious to reach it quickly. When we set out to achieve something in the future, it’s important to be diligent and persistent in order to reach a completion.

There’s a phrase 行百里者半九十. 行 originally meant an intersection, or a junction of two roads. This is where we get the meanings such as procession, or degree of relationship, as in 行列. There were many merchants at such junctions, so we also have words like market, or merchant. 銀行 (bank) consists of the word 銀 (silver), so it originally meant a place where you bought and sold silver. In the past, silver was used as a form of common currency. 洋行 means a Western-style store, or a new type of merchant. Many people walk about a junction on a road, so we also have meaning of going or moving around. In 行百里者半九十, 行 means going. Therefore 行百里者 means a person going one hundred ri.

半 originally meant half, but here it means considering as half. We just have number 九十 for a numeric value of ninety, but because of the word 百里 (hundred ri), we can assume the unit of ri here as in ninety ri. So, 半九十 would mean consider as ninety ri as half.

Synthesizing these together, we have, “a person set out to travel one hundred ri goes ninety ri and considers it a half of his journey.” With such attitude, the person will continue on with persistence, and will not be so anxious to get to the destination quickly.

A turtle has short legs, so it can only travel at a very slow pace, but don’t forget that it can also travel 1,000 ri.

Note: ri is roughly about an one-third of an English mile.

English translation by Michael Han (


原: 秋水/2 中 + 後漢書, 馬援傳, 等等

同: 井蛙, 井底蛙, 埳井之蛙

井中之蛙 (정중지와, jǐngzhōng zhī wā, かんせいのあ) well / in / [of] / frog
A frog in a well. Referring to someone with a very narrow view of things due to ignorance. It comes from the saying, “a frog in a well doesn’t know about the great sea (井中之蛙 不知大海).”

This was near the end of Sin dynasty (新) which appeared after the end of Western Han dynasty (前漢). Wehyo (隗囂) of Nong-seo (隴西) maintained his relationship with King Gwangmu (光武帝) as an ally, but as King Gwangmu became more powerful he felt uneasy, and tried to form an alliance with Gongsonsul (公孫述) of Chok (蜀). Around that time, Gongsonsul had founded a country called Seong (成), and was calling himself an emperor (皇帝). The land of Chok was rich in natural resources, and the terrain made it a natural stronghold, so it was perfect to build up his power.

Wehyo decided to send Mawon (馬援) to Chok in order to find more about Gongsonsul. Mawon was born in Mureung (武陵) and he had moved to Nong-seo to avoid troubles after Wangmang (王莽) had died. After the move, he had accepted the request to become an advisor to Wehyo. Mawon was also a childhood friend of Gongsonsul.

Mawon eagerly looked forward to being received with a warm welcome by Gongsonsul, but he was met with a cold reception. Gongsonsul had been a king for four years, and he assumed a haughty attitude at the top of the stairs, and tried to give Mawon a government position. Of course, Mawon quickly made an exit and returned.
“The supremacy under heaven is yet to be decided, but instead of showing utmost courtesy to a capable person for advice on running a country, he only shows his haughtiness. One cannot discuss affairs of this world with such a person. He is a prideful frog inside of a well. It’s better to look to the East for going forward,” said Mawon to his entourage.

Mawon also said the same thing to Wehyo, and added, “He is merely a frog inside a well. You do not need to deal with him. I think it will be better to be more expectant from Han (漢).” With this, Wehyo gave up trying to form an alliance with Gongsonsul, and instead formed an amiable relationship with King Gwangmu, who would be the progenitor of the Eastern Han (aka Later Han.)

The expression “a frog in a well” was already widely in use before Mawon had used it. There is this narrative in Jang-ja (莊子): “A frog in a well can’t talk about the sea because it is inherently limited by the place (墟) it lives in. A summer bug wouldn’t be able to talk about ice because it only knows about the season of summer. You can’t talk about the Way (道) with someone who only knows about one thing because he is restricted by the limitation of his own learning.


原: 則陽/4 中

蝸牛角上爭 (와우각상쟁, wōniú jiǎo shàng zhēng, 蝸牛角上の争い (かぎゅうかくじょうのあらそい)) snail / horn / above / fight

A fight of snail horns. A useless fight or strife in a small world.

During the Warring States period, feudal lords battled each other year after year for hegemony. The story comes out during such tumultuous time.

King Hye (惠王) of Wi (魏) formed an alliance with King Wi (威王) of Je (齊), but later, King Wi broke this agreement. King Hye was outraged over this, and wanted to send an assassin to kill King Wi.  The ministers of the court considered it cowardly to send an assassin, so some suggested to wage war instead, and some suggested against it. In midst of this, Hwa-ja (華子) suggested just the thought of waging war itself is wrong.

Hwa-ja came forward to the King and spoke, “All these suggestions are not good. Anyone who points to people discussing these matters and regards them as people who are putting the country into a turmoil, are themselves people who are throwing the country into confusion.”

King felt frustrated and asked, “What do you suggest that we do, then?”

“We have to put aside quarrelsome arguments (是非) and stand on the side of the Way (道).”

The King drew a blank stare, and then the chancellor Hye-ja (惠子) called upon a sagacious person named Dae-jin-in (戴晉人) and had him stand in front of the king.  He first asked the king a question.

“Do you know what a snail is?”

“Yes, I do.”

“On its left horn is a country of Chok (觸氏; “pierce”) and, on its right is a country of Man (蠻氏; “barbaric”), and they were fighting each other to expand their territory. There were several tens of thousands of people dying. There were times when it took 15 days to just pursue fleeing enemies.”

The king was dumbfounded at this story, and Dae-jin-in asked another question.

“Do you think there’s an end to this world?” The king shook his head. Dae-jin-in continued.

“Then to those who ponder on this limitless world, the existence of these countries can only be trivial.”

He was basically saying that whether it’s the country of Wi, or the country of Je, they were both like countries on top of a snail’s horns from the perspective of someone whose mind ponder on great things such as the limitless universe.  Dae-jin-in asked this question and left the king.

“What difference are there between you, who is wondering whether or not to wage war against Je, and Chok and Man on the top of the snail horns?”


原: 莊子, 秋水/1 中

望洋之歎 (망양지탄, wàng yáng zhī tàn, ぼうよう-したん), look / sea / [then] / sigh
Sighing after looking at a great sea. Admiring another’s greatness, and feeling shame over one’s shortcomings.

Long time ago, at a place called Maeng-jin (孟津) on the midstream of the Yellow River (黃河) lived a god (河神) named Ha-baek (河伯). He was impressed with the golden gleam of light reflecting from the river, and said, “There is no other body of water like this in this world.”

  A voice replied, “No, that’s not true.” Ha-baek turned his face to find an old turtle nearby, and asked.

  “Is there a body of water greater than the Yellow River?”

  “Yes. Near where the sun rises is the North Sea (北海, now known as 渤海), and it is said that all rivers flow into it. So, the breadth and width of that place is many times greater than the Yellow River.”

  Ha-baek shook his head in disbelief. He had never left Maeng-jin, and he couldn’t believe the words of this old turtle.

  “How could such a big body of water exist?  I can’t believe it unless I see it myself.”

  Then autumn came. The Yellow River rose very high due to many days of rain. While watching this, Ha-baek was suddenly reminded of his conversation with the old turtle, and decided to follow the river to see the North Sea himself.

  When Ha-baek reached North Sea, a god (海神) of that place named Yak (若) came out to greet him. He raised his hands and cut through the air to calm the waters, and before them was a horizon of water that stretched far beyond what Ha-baek had ever seen before.

  Ha-baek was taken aback by the breadth and width of what he was seeing, and his jaw dropped. He was ashamed of his past ignorance and said to Yak, “I heard of the greatness of North Sea, but did not believe it until now. If I did not see this here today, I could not have understood how little I had seen and known in life.”

  Yak smiled and said, “You were a frog in a small well, weren’t you? Without coming to know about the great sea (大海) you would’ve been recognized as a god with little knowledge of the world, but now you have managed to get yourself out of such place.”


原: 莊子, 逍遙遊/1 中

鵬程萬里 (붕정만리, péng chéng wànlǐ, ほうてい-ばんり) big bird / jouney / ten thousand / miles

A large bird travels ten thousand miles.

Jang-ja (莊子, 字: 周) of Taoist school (道家) during the Warring States period wrote the following narrative in his Enjoyment in Untroubled Ease (逍遙遊):

There is a large fish named Gon (鯤) living near a corner of the North Sea. It is not known how many ri (approx. a quarter mile) in length it is. It transforms into a bird called Bung (鵬). The size of Bung is also not known. When it spreads its wings to fly, it covers the clouds of the sky with its wings, and it stirs water of the sea. It can fly from one end of the North Sea to the other end of South Sea in one breath. According to a story by Jehae (齊諧) it rides over the whirlwind of 3,000 ri and travels 90,000 ri without a rest, and then folds its wings in to take a rest.

Jang-ja had envisioned a world where both nature and self become one in harmony (物我一體). He had mentioned this bird to metaphorically describe the appearance of a great person who moves around in the freedom of an ideal world that goes beyond the mundane.

From the mention of this, we have words like bung-gon (鵬鯤), or gon-bung (鯤鵬) which signifies something large that is beyond what anyone can imagine. And bung-bae (鵬背: the back of Bung), or bung-ik (鵬翼: the wing of Bung) are used to refer to anything that is very large. Bung-ik is often used to describe airplanes. And words like bung-bak (鵬搏: the flapping of Bung’s wings), bung-bi (鵬飛: the flying of Bung), bung-geo (鵬擧: the rousing of Bung) all describes an act or spirit of achieving something with a great effort or initiative. Bung-do (鵬圖: the picture of Bung) means a great plan or aspiration.

人無遠慮 必有近憂

原: 論語, 衛靈公

人無遠慮 必有近憂 (인무원려 필유근우,rén wúyuǎnlǜ bì yǒu jìn yōu,ひとぶえんりょしんゆうきんゆう)
If a person does not think far ahead, then he will inevitably experience worries nearby.

This is similar to a saying, “One ought to think deeply of what may happen in the future (深謀遠慮)” from The Critique of Jin (過秦論), an essay written by Ga-eui (賈誼).

Related to this saying, there is a Korean narrative about a civil official (文臣) named Heo Jong (許琮) during the reign of King Seong-jong (成宗) of Joseon dynasty. The Queen Consort was found to be temperamental and was eventually deposed. (She is known as the Deposed Queen Yun (廢妃 尹氏) to this day in Korea.) With the increased pressure from officials, she was later sentenced to death by poisoning. In order to draft this decree to poison (賜死) the deposed Queen, King Seong-jong had summoned all court officials (群臣會議). Heo Jong was a Right Minister (右贊成) at the time, so he had to attend the meeting as well.

While on his way to the royal court, he visited his older sister’s house, and his sister said to him, “How could anyone attend a meeting to poison the Queen? I’m troubled by this. If, at a commoner’s house, the servants gathered to participate in the poisoning of the lady of the house, and her son becomes the head of the household later, what would happen to those servants? How could there be no trouble in the future for them?” He came to realize this, and while passing a bridge, he intentionally fell from the bridge. He excused himself from the meeting due to injuries, and returned home.

Just as his sister had predicted, when King Yeonsan (燕山君) came into power and found out about his mother’s death, he unleashed his wrath against all those involved in the infamous purge of 1504 (甲子士禍). Since then, people started calling that bridge, from which Heo Jong fell, “The Bridge where Heo Jong Fell (琮琛橋)”.

A marker stone over where the bridge was stands in front of Se-yang Building, in Jongro-gu Naeja-dong, Seoul


原: 唐書, 房玄齡傳; 觀政要, 君道; 資治通鑑, 等等

創業守成 (창업수성,chuàngyè shǒuchéng,そうぎょう-しゅせい) start [of] work, maintain or protect / act of
Short form of 易創業難守成, which means the start of a work is easy, but maintaining it is difficult.

During a chaotic time, near the end of Su (隋) dynasty, Yi Yeon (李淵) and Yi Se-min (李世民), who were father and son, raised an army to defeat Emperor Gong (恭帝) of Su and founded the Tang (唐) dynasty in 618 AD.

In 626, King Tae-jong (太宗), named Yi Se-min, succeeded his father, King Go-jo (高祖), named Yi Yeon, and ushered in an age of great prosperity (盛世) under the era name of Jeong-gwan (貞觀之治, 627-649). He unified the country, expanded the territory, guarded against extravagance, stabilized the economy, recruited talents from abroad, and helped to develop the academia and the culture of the country. He became the model king for subsequent kings to follow.

Such Jeong-gwan rule was possible not only because of King Tae-jong’s abilities, but around him were wise retainers such as Du Yeo-hui (杜如晦) who was known for his decisiveness; Bang Hyeon-ryeong (房玄齡), recognized for his planning skills; and Wi Jing (魏徵), known for his upright character.

One day, King Tae-jong asked his retainers, “Between starting a business, and maintaining that business, which is more difficult?”
Bang Hyeon-ryeong replied, “Starting a business can only be achieved by only successful person among many rival leaders that spring up everywhere, so I would say starting is more difficult.”
Wi Jing gave a different reply, “From the old days, the position of a monarch is finally obtained after going through much hardships, however it is easily lost in complacency. Therefore, I think protecting and maintaining is more difficult.”
King Tae-jong nodded, and said, “Duke Bang had to risk his own life with me to gain the whole world, and that’s why he said starting a work is more difficult. Duke Wi has always been cautious against pride and extravagance for the prosperity and the welfare of people (國泰民安), and also against complacency which causes calamity and chaos (禍亂). And that’s why he has said protecting and maintaining is more difficult. Since the difficulties of a start has come to an end, I shall now focus on maintaining with you.”


As recorded in the Royal Annals of Joseon dynasty, June 19, 1625:



Lamentation over the current state of affairs

We lament over thee, royal officials
Do not boast about yourselves
You live in their houses
You took over their lands
You ride on their horses
You do what they did
[Between] you and them
[Looking over] what difference are there?


原: 論語, 述而/11

暴虎馮河 (포호빙하,bào hǔ píng hé,ぼうこ-ひょうが) hit with bare hands / tiger / walk across water / river
Attack a tiger with bare hands and cross a river without anything.

One day, Gong-ja said to his disciple An-yeon (顏淵: 顏回), “Doing the right thing when appointed to an office, and living contently in seclusion when abandoned, are these things only you and I are capable of doing? Gong-ja said this because An-yeon was one of his favorites among over 3,000 disciples. An-yeon was both virtuous and studious, and Gong-ja even fell into a deep despair when he later died at the age of only 31. Gong-ja was praising him with such a comment.

Then, Jaro (仲由), hearing this, became little jealous and asked Gong-ja, “If you were to lead a great army (三軍), who would you have on your side?” Jaro asked this question because he felt himself to be more brave than many. He was sure that Gong-ja would pick him, but the reply was that Gong-ja would not be with someone would be so rash to attack a tiger with bare hands and cross a river without anything. He would rather have someone who thinks deeply about the action to take, and then succeeds in execution of the plan. Gong-ja replied this way to warn him against being rash.

Gong-ja taught it’s difficult to accomplish anything without a good plan, and it can also become prone to failure without being cautious. Jaro became silent at this point.