The Cicada, Mantis, and Bird

Alex Chen
3 min readFeb 4, 2024
Icon Sources: 1, 2, 3

During the Spring Autumn period (771–476 BCE) of China’s history, many small countries were at war with each other. One country was named Wu, and the King of Wu was eager to expand his territory and power. He saw an opportunity to invade a neighboring country, the country of Chu, and was keen to seize the opportunity.

However, his ministers advised him against it, saying that if we send our troops out to invade Chu, other countries might seize the opportunity to invade us in our defenseless state. However, the King of Wu didn’t listen. In fact, he got angry and said any coward that obstructs him will be sentenced to death. With this, no one dared to speak up about the matter again.

There was a child in the palace who was very concerned about this matter. He didn’t want to see his country perish, and he thought long and hard about how to admonish this stubborn king. Finally, he thought of an idea.

Every morning, he went to the palace’s garden with his slingshot. He then crouched below a tree and stared upwards at the branches, looking for a target. He stayed there for the whole morning. On the third day, since the King of Wu was in a bad mood because none of his ministers supported his decision, he went for a walk in the garden. When he saw this child crouching below the tree, aiming a slingshot, he came over and asked, “Hey kid, what are you doing?”

The child said, “Your highness, I’m preparing for something extremely interesting!”

The king said, “Oh? And what’s that?”

The child continued, “There’s a cicada on that tree branch, happily singing its song. But it doesn’t know that there’s a mantis lurking behind, about to use its claws to capture the cicada. Moreover, the mantis doesn’t know that there’s a bird creeping behind, about to eat the mantis.”

The king said, “That’s an interesting scene indeed.”

The child said, “But there’s more! The bird doesn’t realize that I’m down here, and just when the bird is distracted with eating the mantis, I can shoot it down! The mantis and bird are all too caught up in the immediate temptation in front of them that they can’t see the broader danger lurking behind.”

The king suddenly realized why his ministers were so strongly opposed to his decision, and not wanting to be like the bird or mantis, he decided to call off the invasion.

(Story Source: 1, 2)

Commentary

There’s a Chinese idiom that goes, “the mantis hunting the cicada”, and it refers to this story. It describes people who are too tunnel-visioned into the temptation in front of them that they cannot see the broader dangers. It is fortunate that the King of Wu was able to realize his own mistake from the child’s tactful advice; Otherwise, his greed and arrogance could have brought destruction to his country and citizens.

This story is a great illustration of this quote:

“Do not just consider the present action, but also consider its side effects. Do not just consider immediate effects, but also long-term effects. Do not just consider the effects on one person, but also the effects on the greater whole.”

— Liao Fan’s Four Lessons

Although our situations are different from the King of Wu, we all need to guard against tunnel-visioning and arrogance. Wise people are humble. Wise people see the bigger picture and the long-term view. Wise people objectively consider other people’s advice. Wise people give advice in a tactful manner that doesn’t make the receiver feel disrespected. How could we be more wise today?

Originally published at https://www.weeklywisdomblog.com on February 4, 2024.

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Alex Chen

Passionate about self-cultivation, happiness, and sharing wisdom.