Cracking the Wisdom of Chinese Idioms
preening pearls that pack a punch
Here’s the thing with Chinese idioms — there are lots and lots of them and, for the most part, they are not particularly useful.
Hold on — this is not a foreign language lesson!
I’ve been a student of Mandarin Chinese for 20 years; it’s one of the languages my wife and I use with our kids, and I can tell you that I rarely use idioms — or proverbs, or adages, or whatever you call these compact expressions that we’ll get to in a second.
But there is a beauty in the way they distill the human condition into a string of four (or sometimes five or more) syllables. If you like cultural trivia and the rhythmic poetry of any language, there’s a good chance that you’ll get a kick out of these.
one stone, two birds
(yi shi er niao)
I think this expression is a good jumping-off point for the topic because of its familiarity and simplicity. Did the English saying kill two birds with one stone come directly or indirectly from this Chinese idiom? I will leave that up to language historians. The meaning and imagery are the same.
We’ll come back to the animal kingdom shortly, but let me first jump to one of my personal favorites.
drop pants to fart
(tuo ku zi fang pi)
Love the visual that this projects for the mind’s eye. The meaning is to make things overly complicated, to exert unnecessary effort. A close match would be crossing a river to get water, or a tortuous and convoluted sequence of steps that we might describe as a Rube Goldberg process.
Let’s get back to animal-themed idioms.
tiger head, snake tail
(hu tou she wei)
In expressions involving animals, some beasts tend to be positive and represent virtuous qualities: e.g., the tiger, the horse, the dragon. Others like the pig and the snake are typically associated with negative, undesirable qualities. This contrast is on full display in this case, where “tiger’s head, snakes’ tail” implies a strong start but a weak finish.
difficult to dismount a tiger
(qi hu nan xia)
To be in a precarious, sticky situation with no easy escape. To be in over your head, or perhaps beyond the point of no return.
I love that the next two use drawing as an analogy. It seems appropriate for Chinese script, with its highly graphical, three-dimensional representation.
draw dragon, dot the eye
(hua long dian jing)
To add the finishing touches to something, literally to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. It can also refer to making a final point that caps a strong argument and closes the case.
draw snake, add legs
(hua she tian zu)
To ruin something by adding what is superfluous, to embellish, to overdo.
play the lute to a cow
(dui niu tan qin)
The reference here is speaking to or performing for an unappreciative audience: i.e., speaking to a wall, preaching to deaf ears. The slight is not intended for the proverbial cow but for the speaker or performer who misjudges his audience.
chicken talking to the duck
(ji tong ya jiang)
This describes a failure to communicate — a scenario where two parties are not on the same page and talking past each other.
ivory will not come from a dog’s mouth
(gou zui li tu bu chu xiang ya)
Truthful or refined speech will not come from the mouth of a crude individual.
crouching tiger, hidden dragon
(wo hu cang long)
This phrase is immediately recognizable from the Ang Lee movie of the same name, but what does it mean? For a long time, since martial arts featured prominently in the movie, I assumed that the expression referred to kung-fu positions. In fact, it is used to describe individuals with hidden talents and unexplored potential.
dagger concealed by a smile
(xiao li cang dao)
Friendly manners belying sinister intentions — a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Notice that this phrase uses the same complicated but very attractive character 藏 as the previous, meaning “concealed, hidden.”
long ill, become doctor
(jiu bing cheng yi)
A prolonged illness makes the patient into the medical expert — pretty self-explanatory.
occupy the latrine but not shit
(zhan zhe mao keng bu la shi)
Yes, Chinese sayings can get graphic too. The idea of someone hogging and preventing access to a resource that he himself has no use for pops up in Western tradition also — in the fable of the Dog in the Manger. And another colloquial expression comes to mind: shit or get off the pot!
Let me conclude with another personal favorite. As much as I like idioms featuring animals, I have an even stronger affinity for phrasing that attributes human qualities to inanimate objects.
stubborn rocks nod their heads
(wan shi dian tou)
This is used as a compliment, for an argument so persuasive that even the rocks and stones (or the more dim-witted members of the audience) can’t help but to nod in agreement.
Many Chinese idioms and proverbs are derived from some fable or legend — they are abbreviated forms of a longer backstory. This particular phrase is traced back to a Buddhist monk named Wei, from the Jin dynasty (4th and 5th centuries, A.D.). For me, it is also tied to a memorable experience, from the time that I visited Taiwan’s amazing Kinmen island, and saw the inscribed rock atop its tallest peak.
A note on the Chinese phrases above: I opted for the traditional script still in use in Taiwan and Hong Kong, rather than the simplified script used in Mainland China. For the phonetic transcription, I used standard Hanyu Pinyin but omitted tone marks for aesthetic purposes.
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