ChengYu: 十面埋伏 Meaning

Ru-Ping Chen | November 07, 2015 | | 2 Comments

The Idiom

Traditional: 十面埋伏

Simplified: 十面埋伏

Pinyin: shí miàn mái fù


Many know 十面埋伏 because of Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s 2004 award-winning wuxia movie of the same name (also known as "House of Flying Daggers" in English.) The idiom describes a specific manner of military strategy in which the enemy is ambushed. Typically, it refers to moving slowly, but striking the enemy hard.

十面: ten surfaces (means “all around”)

埋伏: to ambush


Towards the end of the Qin Dynasty, there lived a man named 韩信 (hán xìn). He fought for the Qin Dynasty many times, displaying incredible performance on the battlefield, but never received recognition for his feats. Under the leader 项羽 (xiàng yǔ) at the time, Han Xin tried numerous times to get promoted from soldier to a general but to no avail. Xiang Yu did not see Han Xin’s potential. So Han Xin left and went to fight for Xiang Yu’s enemy, 刘邦 (liú bāng). Fun Fact: Liu Bang started the Han Dynasty after the Qin Dynasty fell.

As a soldier in Liu Bang’s army, Han Xin managed to get a small position, but various events led to his imminent execution. Right before his death, Han Xin said, “Doesn’t Liu Bang want to win this war?” The executioner heard this, and stopped the execution. The executioner proceeded to hold a conversation with Han Xin. Apparently, Han Xin’s military genius glowed during their intercourse and the executioner managed to save Han Xin.

Once again, Han Xin fell into a depression. Liu Bang did not notice his potential, and Han Xin decided to leave later on. Fortunately, he was called back by one of Liu Bang’s advisors, 萧何 (xiāo hé), who had seen Han Xin’s military inclinations in the flesh. Liu Bang decided to listen to Xiao He and Han Xin became a general.

Han Xin eventually became one of Liu Bang’s strongest generals. He took much of Xiang Yu’s territory and at the very last battle, surrounded Xiang Yu’s army. This ambush took many days, hence moving slowly but striking Xiang Yu incredibly hard.

Even though Xiang Yu managed to escape the ambush, he eventually committed suicide. Why? Xiang Yu would rather die by his own hand than risk torture by the enemy. Makes sense.


I feel that ambushing people in battle is too sneaky.

A successful ambush needs to be planned out carefully.

Following the upgrade in military weaponry, ambush techniques have also changed.


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Ru-Ping Chen

Ru-Ping Chen

Ru-Ping Chen is a contributing writer at TutorABC Chinese. She has always loved doing research into her Chinese heritage, so she decided to attend the University of California, Berkeley to double major in Business and Chinese, focusing in Chinese language and history. Her other interests include reading Western Classics, teaching herself Chinese poems, and learning other East Asian languages.

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