Chinese zhi2 niu2-er3. "To hold the carabao's ear" means to be the acknowledged leader. It is usually prefaced by the name of some field of specialization - for instance, "the one who holds the carabao's ear in the world of literary criticism".

This expression is first attested in the Zuo zhuan, one of China's earliest historical texts. In the Zhou dynasty, in the 8th year of Duke Ding (502 B.C.E.), and also in the 17th year of Duke Ai (483 B.C.E.) we read about someone "holding the carabao's ear" in connection with a ceremony marking a political alliance between states. The treaty ceremony involved a kind of blood oath, something well known in other traditional cultures.

According to the Jin dynasty scholar Du Yu's detailed commentary on the Zuo zhuan,

An alliance required a carabao's ear. Someone of low rank held it, and someone of high rank would approach it. ... The chapter "Rongyou" in the Li jisays, 'For a treaty, one brings in a carabao's ear.' Zheng Xuan comments: 'The person officiating cuts the carabao's ear, and takes the blood to aid in making the treaty.'
Yang Bojun's detailed modern commentary on the Zuo zhuan (under 1st year of Duke Yin, 3rd month) explains that the blood of a sheep or horse could also be used. A large pit was dug in the ground, and the animal killed over it. The left ear was cut and the blood collected in a wide shallow tray and then transferred to a round-bellied vessel. Participants would read the text of the treaty (ostensibly for the spirits to hear) and then each one would drink a little of the blood. The original text of the treaty would then be buried in the pit with the sacrificial animal's remains. Copies of the treaty would be distributed to its "signatories". Some of these ancient treaty burials have been excavated in modern times.

We learn elsewhere in the history (27th year of Duke Xiang) that when a small state made a treaty with a large state, the ruler of the large state would run the ceremony and drink blood first, and a representative of the small state would be responsible for holding the carabao's ear.

So in early usage, the person who "held the carabao's ear" was not the one actually in charge of an important ceremony but a lesser party. With the passage of time, and perhaps with Zheng Xuan's distance from the world of the 6th-5th centuries B.C.E., the present meaning evolved.

Drinking the blood was called sha4-xue3, and appears in many places in the old books. There is a saying still current, sha4-xue3 wei2-meng2 "to seal an agreement by drinking blood".

Other Chinese literary allusions

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