What is the etymology of the phrase 隴を得て蜀を望む?

8

I just came across this phrase, which is listed in the dictionary as:

never being satisfied with what one gets, and always wanting more; giving someone an inch and having them take a mile; taking Gansu only to want Sichuan

It's the last meaning that interests me. Is this a relic of Imperial Japanese history? After a quick Wikipedia search I wasn't able to find that Gansu was taken by the Japanese, although they certainly did want Sichuan. Did this phrase originate in historical events, or is it really just a figure of speech?

Also, where does the interpretation of 隴 as Gansu come from? In Chinese it's 甘肃 and in Japanese 甘粛省. I can't find anything in dictionaries about this character relating to Gansu.

Lou

Posted 2019-12-09T10:52:37.483

Reputation: 2 985

There's four characters in that phrase, reorder the characters to get a Chinese word order and you get...得隴望蜀. – dROOOze – 2019-12-09T11:10:16.510

Is that a Chinese phrase? – Lou – 2019-12-09T12:02:00.507

1@Lou Quite a few Japanese phrases are from Chinese phrases/sentences but reordered as per Kanbun readings. If you find a phrase which references Chinese history/geography/names a lot, it's worth attempting to re-order the characters in a Chinese word order yourself then checking if your attempt gets Chinese-language google hits - that way you can find out if the phrase you're querying originates from the Chinese language. – dROOOze – 2019-12-09T13:17:53.283

Answers

14

What is the etymology of the phrase 隴を得て蜀を望む?

We can reorder the characters to get 得隴望蜀, which is a Chinese-language yojijukugo. This phrase may reference a few unrelated historical events.

The earliest such event is about Emperor Guangwu of Han reunifying the Gansu region into Han territory then turning his sights on Sichuan (see Emperor Guangwu of Han's gradual victories over other regional powers). He succeeded in reunifying Sichuan into Han territory too, but the phrase originates from before he ordered his soldiers to march towards Sichuan. From the Book of Later Han:

《後{{kr:漢}}書》卷17・岑彭傳

。。。。。。敕彭書曰:『兩城若下,便可將兵南擊蜀虜。人若不知足,既平隴,復望蜀。 每一發兵,頭須為白。』

(My translation)

...Emperor Guangwu wrote a letter to Cen Peng, saying:

Once the two cities [now a single city called Tianshui] have fallen, the soldiers can march south and attack those Sichuan slaves [slave = derogatory term for a group of people]. If one does not know contentment, after they pacify Gansu, they will then wish for Sichuan. Every time soldiers are sent to battle, more of my hairs turn white.

As for the exact phrase 得隴望蜀, you can find it in several places in Chinese literature, e.g. in one of Li Bai's poems.

唐・李白《古風》之二三

。。。。。

物苦不知足,得隴望蜀

。。。。。


Where does the interpretation of 隴 as Gansu come from?

隴 was originally the name of a neighbouring mountain called 隴山, and was early on used as an abbreviation for Gansu.

dROOOze

Posted 2019-12-09T10:52:37.483

Reputation: 7 698

Thanks for the answer! So it's a reference to Chinese military history, not Japanese ... Really interesting! – Lou – 2019-12-09T14:13:14.670