Chinese Idiom: No Idea What To Do With One’s Hands and Feet(手足無措)

Coming to a situation where one has no idea what to do with one’s hands and feet. (Mei Hsu/Epoch Times)
By Lilly Choo
Epoch Times

The idiom “No idea what to do with one’s hands and feet” can also be translated as “to be at a loss” or be bewildered. Literally, this expression means to not know where to rest one’s hands and feet.

The idiom originated from Chapter XIII of the Analects of Confucius1, a collection of ideas attributed to the Chinese philosopher Kong Zi (known as Confucius)2 and his contemporaries during the Warring States period (475–221 B.C.).

The state of Wei was once a strong state during the early Spring and Autumn period (770–475 B.C.). When King Ling of Wei died in 493 B.C., his grandson ascended the throne and was named King Chu because his father, King Ling’s son, had been deposed and exiled to the state of Song.

In order to usurp the throne, King Chu’s father, Kuai Kui, fought against his own son. The conflict between father and son weakened the Wei state, thereby ruining the state’s reputation. During that time, King Chu requested that Kong Zi help him, but Kong Zi refused.

Kong Zi’s disciple, Zi Lu, who worked for the state of Wei, asked Kong Zi what he believed was the first thing that needed to be done if he were to help administrate the government.

Kong Zi replied that he would do what was necessary to rectify names and, with greater detail, said to Zi Lu: “If names are not instituted properly, instructions will not be accepted. If instructions are not accepted, things are not accomplished. If things are not accomplished, rites and music cannot thrive. If proprieties and music do not thrive, punishment will not be carried out with justice. If punishment is not carried out with justice, the people will easily make mistakes and they will not know how to move hand or foot. Thus, with a name properly instituted, a gentleman can speak and actions can be taken. What a gentleman says must be earnest.”

Kuai Kui managed to take over the throne in 478 B.C. as King Hou Zhuang. Three years later, however, he was killed and King Chu became the king of the state of Wei once more.

The idiom “No idea what to do with one’s hands and feet” came from Kong Zi’s teaching to his disciple, Zi Lu. Today, it is used to describe when one is in a situation of panic, with no solution in sight, or totally at a loss as to what to do.


  1. The bookAnalects of Confucius” is also known as “Lunyu.” It is said to have been written later by his students during the Warring States period (475–221 B.C.).
  2. Kongzi lived around 551–479 B.C. He is one of the most famous teachers and philosophers of the Spring and Autumn period (770–475 B.C.). His teachings emphasized morality, justice, sincerity, and social relationships.

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