The Origin of the Chinese Idiom: Wearing a Fur Coat Inside Out When Carrying Firewood

There is a story in the book Liu Xiang’s New Order (Xin Xu in Chinese) about Duke Wen (Wei Wen Hou) of the Wei State during the Warring States Period (475 - 221 B.C.) of the Zhou Dynasty.

Duke Wen was a wise and noble leader. One day, the Duke saw a man carrying firewood on his back whilst wearing a fur coat inside out with the fur on the outside. The Duke asked him, “Why are you wearing your fur coat inside out whilst carrying that firewood on your back?”

The man replied, “It’s because I treasure the fur on this coat so much that I don’t want to wear it out.”

The Duke replied, “Don’t you know that, if the lining wears out, the fur will come off?”

The next year, the Dongyang region in the Wei State submitted ten times as much tax money and grain as usual. All the royal court officials congratulated Duke Wen for the increase in the tribute. However, Duke Wen was deeply worried. He responded, “What do you congratulate me for? This is not a good sign. This is just like the man who wore his fur coat inside out while carrying firewood. He liked the fur so much that he forgot it was more important to protect the lining in order to preserve the fur. By the same token, the amount of farmable land in Dongyang has not increased in the past year, and the population in Dongyang has remained the same, but the taxes and grain collected have increased by tenfold. The abrupt increase must have been the result of extortion by local officials. This is deeply disturbing to me. If the collection of exorbitant taxes becomes a trend, the Wei State will be in chaos.”

Since then, the phrase “wearing a fur coat inside out when carrying firewood on the back” has the meaning of pursuing something trivial and forgetting the fundamentals.

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