Chinese Idioms: 9 Shepherds for 10 Sheep (十羊九牧)

By Zhong Duoyu

The idiom “9 shepherds for 10 sheep,” which originates from a story about a senior official’s report to an ancient Chinese emperor, contains wisdom and common sense that remain useful and relevant for managers of all kinds in the modern day.

About 1,500 years ago, China was in a period of chaos that lasted for over 100 years, when the country was divided into two parts, northern and southern, each ruled by a series of brief dynasties. There were wars and unceasing social disorder, but it was also a time of prosperity for art, culture, and religion. This period was called the Southern and Northern Dynasties (A.D. 420–581).

Following this period, the Sui Dynasty (A.D. 581–618) was established by Emperor Wen, who unified China for the first time after over a century of north-south division.

The emperor had some loyal court officials to help him. One of them was Yang Shangxi (about A.D. 533–590).

Yang noticed some challenges in governing the country. There were too many counties and county officials, due to the different administrative jurisdictions carried over from the previous dynasties. Thus, most of the officials were responsible for small regions only, or were serving no actual, useful function.

This situation not only imposed a heavy cost burden on the government, but was also a hindrance to getting things done smoothly. Yang felt very worried, so he filed a report to Emperor Wen.

Yang wrote: “There are now too many counties and too many officials, just like having 9 shepherds for 10 sheep. It is creating heavy costs for the court and generally making it take a long time to get things done.

“Reducing the number of counties and officials is an urgent priority for the state. I recommend that we maintain only those administrative regions that make sense, and assign capable officials to locations where they are truly needed. For the officials who are dismissed, we can offer them other jobs.

“These changes will allow the government to greatly reduce expenditures and to administer state affairs much more efficiently and effectively.”

After reading Yang’s report, Emperor Wen took his advice and implemented a series of centralized reforms, which led to very good results.

This story was included in a biography of Yang Shangxi in the “Book of Sui” (1). The phrase 十羊九牧 (shí yáng jiǔ mù) in Yang’s report to Emperor Wen, literally “10 sheep, 9 shepherds,” later became an idiom.

The idiom is often translated as “9 shepherds for 10 sheep,” and is used to describe a situation in which there are too many people giving orders and not enough people to carry them out.

It is also used to convey the importance of having clear lines of authority in managing any task or organization, so that there is no confusion or uncertainty about whose orders to follow.

The Book of Sui (隋書, Suí Shū) is the official history of the Sui Dynasty. It was written by a team of prominent scholars during the Tang Dynasty and completed in A.D. 636. The book consists of five volumes of annals, 30 volumes of treatises, and 50 volumes of biographies.

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