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滥竽充数 (lan4 yu2 chong1 shu4)

A statement meaning to present poor quality products as being of good quality; to masquerade as a person with talent; or to use inferior things to make up a quota.

In order to understand this Chinese proverb fully, it is neccessary to look at the story behind it. In the state of Qi during the Warring States period, there was a king who was known as King Xuan (齐宣王). He loved listening to music from yu, an ancient Chinese woodwind instrument. In fact he loved it so much, he ordered an Imperial Yu Orchestra, and there were to be 300 men in that orchestra.

A musician of little talent was enrolled in the orchestra. His name (as known to historians) was Mr. Nan Guo (南郭先生), and he could hardly play the yu at all. However, he managed not only to survive, but also to thrive in that position, as all he had to do was to pretend to finger and to puff into the instrument in front of the king. He earned a lot of quid doing this.

It came to pass that when King Xuan died, his successor King Min (齐湣王) took the throne and declared that henceforth the Imperial Ochestra members would play for him too, but only one person at a time. Mr. Nan Guo, having an acute sense of survival, decided to hotfoot it from the palace and was not heard from again.

The translation of the proverb can probably be improved on. I translated it loosely in the context of the story. The first word, 滥, means "excess". The second character is the name of the instrument yu (竽). The third character means to fill, or to make up (充) and the last (数) means numbers, or a quota. Putting it together we get "excess-yu-fill-quota", not an easily comprehensible sentence in English, but a perfect four-word proverb (成语) in Chinese.

An associated idea in E2 speak is Noding for Numbers.

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