PureInsight | March 22, 2004
[PureInsight.org] During the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 - 220 AD), there was a person by the name of Huo Xu who was very courageous and full of insight from a very young age.
When he was fifteen years old, his uncle on his mother's side, Song Guang, was falsely charged with tampering with an imperial edict and sent to prison because he impartially enforced the laws and offended some influential officials. Huo Xu knew that his uncle was a righteous person and would never commit such a crime. So he wrote a letter to General Liang Shang to plead the innocence of his uncle.
He wrote, "As the head of the prefecture, Song Guang has always been law-abiding and rendered excellent service to the imperial court. Would he risk capital punishment to violate the imperial edict? Would that not be like a person appeasing his hunger by eating monkshood (an extremely poisonous medicinal herb), or quenching the thirst by drinking zhen (refers to wine in which zhen feathers had been soaked -- zhen was a legendary bird with very poisonous feathers)? The person would die as soon as the poison entered his throat, way before they could make their way to his stomach to quench his hunger or thirst. How could Song Guang do such a thing?"
After Liang Shang read the letter, he thought it was very reasonable. He handed the letter to the Emperor. Not long after that, Song Guang was released and pronounced to be innocent.
"Drinking zhen to quench the thirst" thus became an idiom describing someone who merely considers the benefit for the time being and not contemplating the gravity of the consequence that his action will bring him.
(From The Biography of Huo Xu -- Document from the Later Han Dynasty)
Translated from: http://www.zhengjian.org/zj/articles/2004/2/26/25998.html