螳臂當車/Tángbìdāngchē: The praying mantis who raises its arms to stop the chariot.
One day, a prince out in his chariot. was standing in the path of the chariotwheel the chariotapproached, the mantis raised both of its arms in attempt to stop the wheel. The prince took notice of the mantis’ bravery, saying that looked like a valiant hero standing in defiance of great defeat, and asked his driver to steer clear of the mantis. News of the prince’s magnanimity spread and soon his court was filled with “heroes” seeking asylum.
This story was written during the Warring States period of Chinese history, where a multitude of kingdoms were fighting and killing each other for supremacy in China. It’s found in the Zhuangzi, one of the foundational books of Daoism, which aimed to explain human nature while existing in chaos.
What is the lesson? Is it to be like the prince, to show mercy to those who show bravery in the face of their doom? Or is it to not be like a praying mantis, overestimating one’s own strength? When this chengyu is used, it always means the latter. Do not overestimate your strength, because not all dangers are like a chariot wheel. More simply, people, by nature, tend to overestimate their strength, so one must know that impulse and guard against it.
American culture in the 21st century, be it politics or otherwise, falls prey to this cognitive trap. Fundamentalists on all sides believe with little more than faith that their ideas are so strong, they are above reproach. They lift those beliefs up against all challenges, thinking that their conviction is enough to stop the onslaught of evidence or contradictions. If those true believers were praying mantises, it is more than likely that they would face down a chariot wheel sometime in their existence, a chariot wheel that their arms cannot defend against. They are overestimating their strength.
The fervent resistance to the utility of religion by the New Atheists is an example 螳臂當車. New Atheists are so entrenched in their fundamentalist view that all religion is bad, that they can’t even see that the wave of belief and community religion provides has become a pillar of their own disciples.
The second part of the parable of the mantis is the asylum seekers to the prince. Because the prince admired the bravery of the mantis, failed warriors fled to his land to seek asylum. They had been defeated, and sought sanctuary instead of dying on the battlefield. If you look at those “heroes” as fundamentalists and their ideas, the weak ones should die when placed in front of a stronger one. However, fundamentalists retreat to the citadel of doctrine and supporters, not understanding that their retreat is futile in the face of the tide evidence. There is no real difference between the prince and the mantis, or the heroes.
螳臂當車 is a cautionary tale, warning humanity to be conscious that there are forces far greater than themselves. Without the understanding of one’s limited strength, individuals and humanity as a whole run the risk of being crushed by forces they may not even understand. Or, as stated in Proverbs 16:18 “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”