History Lessons

Becoming the top dog

Duzhan aotou

Turtle w

Last Friday, 49 year-old Alibaba CEO and founder Jack Ma announced his retirement from day-to-day operations during Taobao’s 10th anniversary party. Ma will stay on at Alibaba to provide strategic advice but says that he’s getting “a bit old” for life as an internet titan.

His replacement at the top is Jonathan Lu, a longtime lieutenant. The Chinese saying for ‘becoming the top dog’ in a certain field is 独占鳌头 duzhan aotou, which translates as ‘standing alone on the giant turtle’s head’. But what is the historical allusion behind this saying?

During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, imperial examinations would take place across the country for scholars who wished to become court officials. Several rounds took place, the final of which was called the jindian shi 金殿试 examination, in front of the emperor himself.

The top three nominated scholars or jinshi (进士 would gather on the vermilion steps in the hallway of the imperial palace. There, they were to be conferred titles, zhuangyuan 状元 for the top spot in the examinations, bangyan 榜眼 for second place and tanhua 探花 for third. Having kowtowed to the emperor, their achievements were then proclaimed in a musical ritual ceremony called chuanlu 传胪.

Once the ceremony was over, the scholars would walk up to the steps to the imperial throne and stand in a triangular format, with the top scholar standing ahead of the other two. A giant turtle was sculpted onto the top stone step. Hence the act of standing alone on the turtle’s head – duzhan aotou – thus implied being ‘number one’.

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