Learn Chinese Words: 南辕北辙 (nán yuán běi zhé)

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

南辕北辙 (nán yuán běi zhé) is an ancient idiom, originating from a story in ancient China. It means taking actions that are opposite to one's goals and ultimately failing to achieve them.


“nán” means south
“yuán” means two straight logs for driving livestock in the front of the car.
“bei” means north.
“zhé” means the wheels of a vehicle roll over the ground and leave marks on it.


During the Warring States period, King Wei of Wei decided to attack the capital of the state of Zhao, Handan. The courtiers opposed this decision, and an official named Ji Liang told a story to him: a man driving a carriage to the state of Chu drove northward, and thus he went further and further away from his destination. The competition for supremacy is not won by military might, but by winning the hearts of the people. Going to war is like driving a carriage towards the south while sitting in a carriage facing north. King Wei of Wei decided not to go to war.


To achieve success, it is necessary to have a clear direction and goal from the outset in order to fully leverage one's favorable conditions, otherwise it will only have the opposite effect. If one aims to achieve a certain goal but acts in a contrary manner, then such actions will only lead to greater distance from success.


  1. His plan sounds great, but in reality, it's completely off track and difficult to achieve.
    tā de jì huà tīng qǐ lái hěn hǎo, dàn shí jì shàng shì nán yuán běi zhé, nán yǐ shí xiàn.
  2. Our goal is to encourage more people to use environmentally friendly products, and your actions are completely the opposite.
    wǒ men de mù biāo shì ràng gèng duō de rén shǐ yòng huán bǎo chǎn pǐn, nǐ zhè yàng zuò jiǎn zhí shì nán yuán běi zhé.
  3. You want to go east, but he wants to go west. It's like driving in opposite directions, we can't agree.
    nǐ xiǎng wǎng dōng zǒu, tā què yào wǎng xī qù, zhēn shì nán yuán běi zhé, wú fǎ xiàng tóu.

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