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Why a failure is called ‘bai bei’ in Chinese

Chinese words, learning Chinese

When Chinese learners read books or newspaper, they often encounter a Chinese word "败北 (bài běi)". In ancient times, the word referred to losing a battle, and it also implied failure in a competition or something else. However, what does "败北 (bài běi)" mean anyway? Does it mean fleeing to the north after a defeat? Why not "败东", "败西" or "败南"?

中文学习者在读书看报的过程中经常会碰到"败北"这个词,"败北"在古代被人们作为打败仗的代称,也引申为做事不成功,竞争失败。那么,"败北"究竟何义?是战败后往北逃跑吗?为什么不能称为"败东"、"败西"或"败南"呢?

 

In ancient Chinese, "北 (běi)" originally meant "back" or "against each other". Therefore, "北 (běi)" can be interpreted as the back of human body. When two armies were at war, the defeated party would turn around and escaped. That's why "败北 (bài běi)" has got the meaning of "failure".

"北"在古代汉语中的本义为"背"或"相背"。由此,"北"引申为人体的背部。古时两军交战,若一方败退则转背而逃,所以"败北"就有了失败的意思。

 

In Master Sun's Art of War, there is a saying "佯北勿从 (yáng běi wù cóng, be cautious about the defeated enemy, never to pursue and attack them blindly)", where the "北 (běi)" means "flee after the defeat". Therefore, "败北 (bài běi)" has nothing to do with fleeing to the north.

《孙子兵法》中有一句话:"佯北勿从。"这里的"北",即是"败逃",意为"敌人假装败逃,不要盲目追赶"。故而,"败北"与向北方逃跑没有任何关联。

 

Moreover, in modern Chinese, "败北 (bài běi)" can be used to mean failure in various competitions or contests, such as a sports event, competitive bidding or election campaign.

而在现代汉语中,"败北"还被用来泛指在各种竞争、竞赛(如体育比赛、竞标、竞选等)中失败。

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2016-06-21

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