The idiom of “It’s hard to take back overturned water” means that the water that has been spilled cannot be taken back. It means that the matter has been settled and cannot be undone.
This idiom comes from Song Dynasty. In Wang Tao’s “The Wild Guest’s Book”, Taigong took a pot of water and poured it on the ground and asked his wife to take it back. He said to his wife, “If you say that you will leave and close, it will be difficult to take back the water.”
At the end of the Shang Dynasty, there was a wise and resourceful person, surnamed Jiang Shang, the word Ziya, known as Jiang Taigong. He was also known as Lv Shang because his ancestor was feuded in Lv. He assisted King Wen of Zhou and King Wu of Zhou to conquer the Shang Dynasty and establish the Zhou Dynasty, and made great achievements. Later, he was sealed in Qi and was the founder of the state of Qi during the Spring and Autumn Period.
Jiang Taigong was an official in the Shang Dynasty, but because he was dissatisfied with King Zhou’s brutal rule, he abandoned his post and lived in seclusion in a relatively remote place by the Weishui River in Shaanxi Province. In order to gain the reappointment of Ji Chang, the leader of the Zhou clan (i.e. King Wen of Zhou), he often fished with straight hooks without bait in a small river, pretending to be a fisherman.
Jiang Taigong fished all day long and his family had problems with their livelihood. His wife, Ma, disliked him for being poor and unproductive and did not want to live with him anymore and wanted to leave him. Jiang Taigong repeatedly persuaded her not to do so and said that one day he would surely get rich and famous. But Ma thought he was lying to her with empty words and did not believe him anyway. Jiang Tai Gong had no choice but to let her go.
Later on, Jiang Tai Gong finally gained the trust and reappointment of King Wen of Zhou, and helped King Wu of Zhou to unite the lords to conquer the Shang Dynasty and establish the Western Zhou Dynasty. When Ma saw that he was rich and powerful, she regretted that she had left him. She approached Jiang Taigong and asked him to resume the relationship with her husband.
Jiang Tai Gong had already seen through Ma’s character and did not want to resume the relationship with her, so he poured a pot of water on the ground and told Ma to put the water away.
Ma hurriedly got down on the ground to fetch the water, but could only receive some mud. Then Jiang Tai Gong said to her coldly, “You have left me, so you cannot be together again. It is like water poured on the ground, it is difficult to retrieve it!”
The meaning of “it is hard to take back the water that has been poured on the ground” is: it is hard to take back the water that has been poured on the ground. The metaphor is that the matter has been settled and cannot be undone.