Searching for an Excellent Horse According to Drawings (按图索骥)

(àn tú suǒ jì )

A traditional Chinese painting of a running horse by painter Xu Beihong (1895-1953).
By Cindy Chan

“Seeking an excellent horse according to drawings” is a Chinese idiom that means “using a hackneyed method” or “lacking originality, initiative, or imagination in handling affairs.”

The idiom comes from a story about a man named Sun Yang who lived in China during the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 B.C.) and who was said to have an outstanding ability to appraise and understand horses.

Almost at a glance, Sun Yang could recognize the type of horse, its strengths and weaknesses, and any special characteristics. He was known to be able to select horses of extraordinary stamina—ones that could run a thousand miles a day.

People referred to Sun Yang as Bo Le, the deity in charge of heavenly steeds.

Based on his expert knowledge and experience of appraising horses, Sun Yang wrote a book called “The Art and Principles of Appraising Horses.” He included drawings of horses and explained the characteristics of the “thousand-mile horse” in his book.

Sun Yang had a son who was much better at reading books than applying knowledge in practical matters. His son read the book and thought it was very easy to identify excellent horses.

Sun Yang’s son took the book and tried to look for a fine horse. However, he could not find any based on the pictures, so he tried to look based on the characteristics of fine horses described in the book.

In the end, he found a toad that had some of the characteristics associated with the “thousand-mile horse” written in his father’s book.

He happily brought the toad home and said to his father, “Father, I found a thousand-mile horse, only its hoofs are a bit poor.”

Sun Yang looked at the toad and did not know whether to laugh or cry. With a sense of humour, he said, “It is too bad that this horse likes to jump too much and cannot be used to pull a cart.”

He then said with a sigh, “This is truly what one would call ‘searching for an excellent horse according to drawings.’”

Through this story, the saying “searching for excellent horse according to drawings” came to mean doing things in a worn-out, old way rather than being flexible and adaptable.

The saying is also used to refer to using existing information as clues to find something or to dig more deeply into a matter.

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