‘Suffer a crushing defeat’ — phrase of the week

Business & Technology

Tech firms are laying off thousands of employees, but they are still hiring for their international businesses. However, entering overseas markets doesn’t always work out, and can lead to some spectacular failures.

Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

Our phrase of the week is: Suffer a crushing defeat (折戟沉沙 zhé jǐ chén shā).


March and April are known as golden March, silver April (金三银四 jīn sān yín sì), China’s corporate hiring season. But this year, many of China’s biggest companies are laying off thousands of employees.

“Going global,” or “setting sail” (出海 chūhǎi), is seen as one of the few areas of growth, with some companies still hiring aggressively for their international businesses. Tech giants Tencent and TikTok have enjoyed some success internationally, making investments and growing international companies by hiring talent in local markets.

But other companies, like Kuaishou, have not done so well, as noted by business and tech news site 36kr this week:


The reason why Kuaishou suffered a crushing defeat in the U.S. was, to a certain extent, similar to why many Chinese internet companies have repeatedly failed as they go global: Kuaishou blindly copied its domestic strategy of “burning cash in exchange for web traffic,” but it overlooked the essential part of going global, which is to educate users and to build the right content.


Suffer a crushing defeat, or more accurately, broken halberds sinking in the sand, is a Chinese idiom that dates back to the Tang dynasty.

It first appeared in the poem “Red Cliff” (赤壁 chì bì), by Dù Mù 杜牧, who lived between 803 and 952. In the poem, Du recalls the famous Battle of Red Cliffs, finding a broken centuries-old halberd buried in the sand.

A halberd (戟 jǐ) is a kind of spear used by armed forces in China since the Zhou dynasty 3,000 years ago.

The Battle of Red Cliffs was a decisive naval battle in the winter of 208–209 at the end of the Han dynasty and fought on the southern banks of the Yangtze River, near what is now Wuhan in Hubei Province. The battle, said to be the largest in human history in terms of numbers of soldiers, was fought between the allied forces of the southern warlords Sūn Quán 孫權 and Liú Bèi 劉備 against the much larger forces of the northern warlord Cáo Cāo 曹操. Despite the superior strength and size of Cao Cao’s forces, the campaign ended in his disastrous loss and retreat.

Nowadays, the idiom suffer a crushing defeat is often used in business or sport, where an apparently strong company, investor, player, or sports team suffers a terrible loss. For Kuaishou, the crushing defeat was its failed investment in Zynn, a TikTok clone that once briefly topped the iOS App Store in the U.S. However, it was taken down by Kuaishou in August 2021 after burning through $250 million in what is seen as an admission that the dominance of TikTok in the American market was too hard to beat.

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Andrew Methven