CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DuneChaser

While the character 矛盾 mean “spear” and “shield”, respectively, you often hear people refer to 矛盾 in phrases like 聖經的內部矛盾 (the internal spear and shield of the Bible), which is the second Google search result for 矛盾 in traditional Chinese, and 我很矛盾 (I’m very spear and shield), which appears in teenagers’ blogs often. Those phrases do not refer to the reasons behind the Crusade or the desire of modern Chinese teenagers to go and reenact scenes from the movie 300. 矛盾 is an idiom in Chinese that means, most directly, “contradiction”. And so those phrases would actually refer to “the internal contradictions in the Bible” and “I’m feeling conflicted”.

The 矛 and 盾 in 矛盾 refer to a spear and a shield that appears in a story in the classical Chinese philosophical work known as 韓非子 written around 250 BCE during the Warring States period. The story難一 (Difficulty the First) is blockquoted below.

楚人有鬻盾與矛者,譽之曰:「吾盾之堅,物莫能陷之。」以譽其矛曰:「吾矛之利,於物無不陷也。」或曰:「以子之矛陷子之盾,何如?」其人弗能應也。夫不可陷之盾與無不陷之矛,不可同世而立。

There is a translation available commercially, but since I am too lazy to go hunt down a possibly out of print expensive academic book I will translate it for your pleasure in accordance to the blog’s tagline. Besides, it’s been a while since I’ve translated any classical Chinese and it’s always a lot of fun. (Yes, the double negatives are intentional since the original text uses double negatives to refer to “everything”. Also they make the translation sound awkward and wisdom-filled.)

From the people of Chu is a man who sold shields and spears. In regards to his shield he said, “my shield is strong; no object can penetrate it.” In regards to his spear he said, “my spear is sharp; it encounters no object it cannot penetrate.” A man said to him, “if your spear strikes your shield, what happens?” The man was unable to answer. A shield no man can penetrate and a spear without an object it cannot penetrate cannot in the same world be established.

If you want to see a poorly animated video of the story with additional irrelevant details you can find it on YouTube. This story is the origin of the idiom 自相矛盾, literally “self” “mutually” “spear” “shield”, or more usefully, “contradicting yourself”. 矛盾 refers to the all-penetrating spear (矛) and the impenetrable shield (盾) which, according to the ancient philosopher 韓非, are too awesome to exist in the same world simultaneously. While 韓非 originally wrote this as a parable of political thought in a world that’s been plunged into war the idiom 矛盾 has become an overarching term for things that fit the “there are two things but you can’t have both of them” category. Now 矛盾 refers to not only contradictions but also oxymorons, paradoxes, Escher paintings and, more modernly, whether one should date a vampire or a werewolf.

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