‘The first signs of autumn’ — phrase of the week

Society & Culture

The fall of the first autumn leaf signals the end of summer and the changing of the seasons. A leaked memo from Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei recalled seasonal metaphors about gloomy economic times ahead.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

Our phrase of the week is: the first signs of autumn (一叶知秋 yí yè zhī qiū).

Context  

A leaked internal memo by Huawei founder Rén Zhèngfēi 任正非, which went viral on Chinese social media, gives a bleak outlook on the global economy, and for the company.

It’s a gloomy picture of a world heading into an economic recession, with no end in sight for at least five years, according to Ren. 

He calls for employees to focus on the company’s survival, give up on wishful thinking, and stop telling stories (讲故事 jiǎng gùshi) to fool both themselves and the company. The cold wind of winter (寒气 hánqì) will pass across the company, reducing its marginal businesses, especially those that are losing money: 

Force these business units to close themselves down, spreading the cold winter across the company. 

逼这个业务自杀,把寒气传递下去.

bī zhège yèwù zìshā, bǎ hánqì chuándì xiàqù.

So Huawei’s Intelligent Automotive Solution Business Unit, the group’s only loss-making business, may be in trouble. 

Ren’s words are listened to carefully by China’s investors, entrepreneurs, media, and the general public; they are looking for signals about broader trends. As one media outlet puts it

As the outside world hears “the first signs of autumn” from Ren’s speech, a winter chill has already fallen on Huawei’s employees.

外界从任正非的讲话中一叶知秋时,寒气正笼罩在华为员工们的头顶.

wàijiè cóng Rén Zhèngfēi de jiǎnghuà zhōng yí yè zhī qiū shí, hánqì zhèng lǒngzhào zài Huáwéi yuángōngmen de tóudǐng.

Translation 

The first signs of autumn as an idiom has a more literal translation, “the first fallen leaf knows autumn is here.”

It’s an old idiom, first appearing in the Huáinánzǐ 淮南子, a collection of essays published around 139 B.C., collated and edited by Liú Ān 劉安, a Han-dynasty prince and the ruler of the Huainan Kingdom. 

The essays are a record of scholarly debates held in the court of Liu, who sought to define the necessary conditions for perfect order in society. According to the Huainanzi, that order is brought about by a perfect ruler. The essays are intended to serve as a handbook for an enlightened leader who wants to bring order. 

The text relating to the first fallen leaf knows autumn is here idiom is found in the chapter “Discourse on Mountains” (说山训 shuō shān xùn), and is as follows: 

Seeing a leaf fall, one knows that a year has come to an end; seeing a frozen pot, one knows winter has arrived: Understand the future by noticing what is before you. 

见一叶落,而知岁之将暮;睹一壶之冰,而知天下之寒:以近论远.

jiàn yí yè luò, ér zhī suì zhī jiàng mù; dǔ yì hú zhī bīng, ér zhī tiānxià zhī hán: yǐ jìn lùn yuǎn.

Nowadays, the idiom is used in much the same way as this ancient Chinese phrase meant it to be over 2,000 years ago: to see broader trends through observing small details as they happen. 

In this context, Ren’s speech is the first of the autumn leaves falling, sounding the alarm of a much broader trend: an inevitable global recession. 

But for Huawei and some other companies in China, the cold chill has already arrived. Perhaps a better translation would be “winter is here.”

Andrew Methven