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Play A Harp Before A Cow

Updated on September 14, 2008

The Modern Version

A Chinese proverb tells a story about a foolish musician play music for his cows. But according modern science, he might be not foolish at all. Some experiments shows that cows will produce more milk if they are stimulated with music. Here is the story:

Once up on a time, there lived a musician named GongMing Yi. He was very good at playing the Zheng, a plucked string instrument. But he also behaved foolishly sometimes.

One day, he saw a cow eating grass in the field near his house. He was inspired by the scene and ran outside to play a tune for the cow. Gong Mingyi played beautifully and he himself was intoxicated by the music. But the cow paid no heed to the elegant sounds. It simply focused its attention on eating the grass. Gong Mingyi was surprised to see that. He couldn't understand why the cow was so indifferent to his performance. Obviously, it is not because his performance is poor. But the cow neither understood nor appreciated his elegant music!

From that story comes the idiom "Play the lute to a cow", which implies that someone speaks or writes without considering his audience. In general speaking, the speaker or writer has over-estimated his listeners or readers. In these cases, the idiom mocks the audience rather than the speaker.

The original version

This modern version of playing a Guqin for a cow normally used to explain the meaning and origin of the "four character idiom" - Dui Niu Tan Qin (to cow play lute), only stressing the foolishness of the ancient musician. But this is only half of the story, the original version first appeared in a book Mou zi Which is one of the earliest Buddhism introductory works wrote by Mou Rong in East Han Dynasty (25-220).

Some people challenged Mou zi and asked: you said Buddhism classics are as deep as sea, as ancient as Long River, as beautiful as satin embroidery, but why do you always answer me with Confucianism classics instead of Buddhism classics themselves?

Mou Zi answered as this: People who are thirsty don't need to drink from the river or sea, people who are hungry don't need to wait until open the granary. A speech is made for its right audience, a book is written for it understanding reader, Buddhism is there waiting for the witty people. If I talk about Buddhism for you, just as useless as talking five colors with blind, and discussing music with the deaf.

Then Mou zi made this story: Gongming Yi at first played classical musics for cow, but the cow kept grazing on the grass, as if it didn't hear the music; but Gongming Yi turned to make some buzzing noise of flies, the cow began flapping its ears, shaking its head, and waging its tail, as if it was annoyed by the flies, and tried to get rid of the them; then Gongming Yi played some Moo Moo sound of a calf, the cow lifted up its dead, and listened very carefully.

What Mouzi tried to say is, to talk with a person in his own language, to introduce Buddhism theory through what all Chinese could understand, that is Chinese traditional Ruism or Confucianism.

When Christian came to China, they did same localisation job, translated Bible into Chinese dialects, made explanation by quoting Analects, Mencius, etc., which are familiar to all Chinese.


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