drinkware; cup; glass a bow (weapon) snake; serpent
picture; image; reflection; shadow
simp. and trad.
Literally: “to mistake the shadow of a bow in one's cup for a snake”.


From a story in the Book of Jin:

親客:「。」河南廳事:「所見?」:「所見。」所以豁然沉痾 [Classical Chinese, trad.]
广亲客广:“。”河南厅事广:“所见?”:“所见。”广所以豁然沉疴 [Classical Chinese, simp.]
From: 648 CE, the Book of Jin, Chapter 43, translation from 100 Chinese Idioms and Their Stories
Yuè Guǎng cháng yǒu qīnkè jiǔ quē bù fù lái, Guǎng wèn qí gù, dá yuē: “Qián zài zuò, méng cì jiǔ, fāng yù yǐn, jiàn bēi zhōng yǒu shé, yì shèn wù zhī, jì yǐn ér jí zuò.” Shí Hénán tīngshì bì shàng yǒu jiǎo qī huà zuò shé, Guǎng yì bēi zhōng shé jí jiǎo yǐng yě. Fù zhì jiǔ yú qián chù, wèi kè yuē: “Jiǔ zhōng fù yǒu suǒjiàn bù?” Dá yuē: “Suǒjiàn rú chū.” Guǎng nǎi gào qí suǒyǐ. Huòrán yì jiě, chénkē dùn yù. [Pinyin]
Yue Guang had a frequent guest, who used to call on him regularly but had failed to turn up for some time. When Yue asked the reason why, the man answered: “On my last visit, you kindly treated me to wine. Just as I was going to take a sip, I saw a snake wriggling in the goblet and I felt quite sick. Nevertheless, I drank; then I soon fell ill.”
Now in those days it was a custom prevailing in Henan Prefecture for a prefect to have a bow painted to look like a snake and hung in his hall. Suspecting that the snake alluded to was nothing but a reflection of the decorated bow, he invited the man again for a drink and set the table in the usual spot.
“Do you still see something in the wine cup?” asked the host.
“Yes, exactly as before.” was the answer.
Then Yue Guang explained what he thought the whole trouble must have been. At that, the guest realized what had happened and instantly relieved of his obsession, and returned to normal.




  1. (figuratively) false alarm; self-created suspicion; atmosphere of fear and admonition