Four-character Chinese idioms

Like the English language, Chinese is replete with idioms and “canned” phrases that convey figurative meanings or help express a feeling or describe a situation more effectively. You will find that many such traditional Chinese phrases consist of four characters, and that the pinyin notations for the individual characters are connected into one single string. We have already come across a few that involve animals. Today, we will look at a few more that refer to animals metaphorically.

雞犬不寧 (jīquǎnbùníng) describes a state of turmoil that makes even fowls and dogs feel ill at ease.

他們時常吵架, 鬧得雞犬不寧.
Tāmen shícháng chǎojià, nào de jīquǎnbùníng.
They quarrelled often, causing great commotion.

對牛彈琴 (duìniútánqín) is to play the lute to an ox, or talking to the wrong audience.

同他談科學, 像是對牛彈琴.
Tóng tā tán kēxué, xiàng shì duìniútánqín.
Talking about science to him is like playing the lute to an ox.

鹿死誰手 (lùsǐshuíshǒu at whose hand will the deer die) refers to a hunting contest, the winner being the one who kills the deer.

鹿死誰手, 現在還說不定.
Lùsǐshuíshǒu, xiànzài hái shuōbudìng.
It’s still too early to tell who will win the contest.

走馬看花 (zǒumǎkànhuā) means to ride on horseback and look at the flowers in passing, i.e. not gaining a deeper understanding or appreciation of (usually) a place.

Wǒmén zài Niǔyuē Shì zhǐshì zǒumǎkànhuā.
We only had a cursory tour in New York City.

馬不停蹄 (mǎbùtíngtí) likens the manner of working at some task to the non-stop galloping of a horse.

他連夜趕工, 馬不停蹄.
Tā liányè gǎn gōng, mǎbùtíngtí.
He rushed the work through the night, like a horse running non-stop.

馬到成功 (mǎdàochénggōng) is to win instant victory, as upon the arrival of the horse. You might offer the following toast to a friend embarking on a new venture:

Zhùnǐ mǎdàochénggōng!
Here’s wishing you instant success!

A task taken on enthusiastically but trails off poorly is like a tiger with a snake’s tail, or 虎頭蛇尾 (hǔtóushéwěi).

Zuòshì bù kěyǐ hǔtóushéwěi.
When doing something, you should not go in like a lion and come out like a lamb.

如鱼得水 (rúyúdéshuǐ) is to be in one’s element, like fish in water.

Wǒ zài zhèr rúyúdéshuǐ.
I’m in my elements here.

生龍活虎 (shēnglónghuóhǔ) are live dragons and real tigers. This phrase is used for describing someone (like a basketball player) who is full of vim and vigour.

Zhèxiē lánqiú duìyuán gègè shēnglónghuóhǔ.
These basketball players – each and every one is like a spirited dragon or tiger.

打草驚蛇 (dǎcǎojīngshé) is to beat the grass and scare away the snake.

Qiānwàn bùyào dǎcǎojīngshé.
Make sure you don’t act rashly and arouse suspicion.

Search the Internet for other four-character Chinese idioms and try to incorporate them into your own sentences.

The Chinese word radical “Pig”

The Chinese word for home or family is (jiā) or 家庭 (jiātíng). For “home, sweet home”, you could say: 甜蜜的家 (tiánmì de jiā).

Tā yǒu yī gè měimǎn de jiātíng.
He has a perfectly happy family.

Click on this link to listen to a beautiful song written by the very talented song writer and movie director, 刘家昌 (Liú Jiāchāng). The title of the song, 我家在那里 (Wǒ Jiā Zài Nàli) could be translated as “That’s Where My Home Is”, or, if you like, “Home on the Prairie”.

The action word for a woman marrying into another family is: (jià).

Zhù Yīngtái bù yuànyì jià gěi Mǎ Wéncái.
Zhu Yingtai did not want to marry Ma Wencai.
(Ref: The Butterfly Lovers)

Furniture is called 傢具 (jiājù), and 傢伙 (jiāhuǒ fellow) is an informal (generally disrespectful) way of referring to a person. 傢伙 (jiāhuǒ) is also used colloquially to refer to a hand tool or a hand weapon.

If you will notice, the character (jiā home) features a roof at the top. Under the roof is the character (shǐ), the formal word for pigs. It used to be that in the Chinese and Taiwanese villages, many families raised pigs for food. A pig under the roof indicates well-being and security. To the Chinese, pigs symbolize prosperity, good fortune as well as avarice, laziness and sloppiness.

Nowadays, pigs and hogs are called (zhū), and the word for pork is 豬肉 (zhūròu). By the way, unlike humans and many other animals, pigs don’t get milk teeth, or 乳牙 (rǔ yá), but just have one set of permanent teeth.

I guess if you blow up a pig’s body and add a huge head and long trunk to it, you will get an elephant, or (xiàng). (xiàng) also represents appearances and phenomena, such as in 氣象 (qìxiàng meteorology).

With the “person” word root on the left side, (xiàng) is the word for a portrait or a picture. It also serves as the verb that means “to look like”.

Tā zhǎng de xiàng tā yéye.
He takes after his grandpa.

(zhuó) is to peck. (See the mouth radical on the left side?)

(zhú) is to chase or drive out. It also means “one by one”.

(duì) is a team or a row of people.

遽然 (jùrán) means suddenly. It is interchangeable with 忽然 (hūrán suddenly).

Tā jùrán tuī le wǒ yīxià.
He suddenly gave me a push.

Although dogs are men’s best friends and pigs have proven to be quite intelligent, traditionally they have not earned a high opinion with the Chinese.

豬狗不如 (zhūgǒubùrú) means to be worse than pigs and dogs.

狼心狗肺 (lángxīngǒufèi) means to be cruel and ungrateful, like having the heart of a wolf and the lungs of a dog.

The fox does not fare any better. 狐假虎威 (hújiǎhǔwēi) means to bully other people by flaunting one’s powerful connections, like a fox trailing a tiger to scare people off.

On the other hand, the mythical dragon, (lóng) is greatly respected and held in awe. Why, it represents the power of the Chinese emperor himself. (lóng) is also a symbol of good luck. This year, 2012, happens to be the Year of the Dragon, or 龍年 (lóng nián).

望子成龍 (wàngzichénglóng) is a phrase describing the fervent wish for one’s son to excel and become successful.

The Chinese word radical “Dog”

Me? Ferocious?

There are two types of people in this world: Those who try to be impeccably honest, and those who don’t mind telling a lie now and then.

誠實 (chéngshí) is the Chinese word that means “honest”, and 說謊 (shuōhuǎng) means to tell a lie.

“The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is a well-known story from Aesop’s Fables that illistrates the bad consequences of telling lies. In Chinese, this story is referred to as 狼來了 (Láng lái le The Wolf Is Coming), or 說謊的孩子 (Shuōhuǎng de Háizǐ The Kid Who Lied).

Click here to watch an animated version of this story.

(láng) is a wolf.
(péi) means to accompany someone, or to keep someone company.
要是 (yàoshi) is one way of saying “if”, “suppose” or “in case”.
(shuǎ) has one less stroke than (yào). It means to play, as in 玩耍 (wánshuǎ), or to play tricks on someone. 耍耍 (shuǎ shuǎ) means “to play a little trick on”.
救命 (jiùmìng) means to save someone’s life.
農夫 (nóngfū) are farmers.
真的 (zhēnde) means true or truly.
跑了 (pǎo le) means to have run away.
拖走 (tuō zǒu) is to drag away.
回去 (huíqu) is to return to or to go back to.
(bèi) is equivalent to the preposition “by” used for inidcating the passive voice.
這小子 (zhè xiǎozǐ) means “this little fellow”.

Nóngfū bèi nà háizǐ shuǎ le.
The farmers were tricked by that child.

小孩說謊, 害了自己.
Xiǎo hái shuōhuǎng, hài le zìjǐ.
The kid lied, and caused trouble to himself.

Omit the little stroke at the top of the right side of the character (láng), and you will get the word, (hěn), which means ruthless or relentless.

On the left side of the above two words is the “dog” radical, which is derived from the formal word for “dog”, (quǎn).

(kuáng) means to be crazy, violent, unrestrained or arrogant.
狂犬病 (kuángquǎnbìng) is rabies.

In everyday speech, we refer to a dog as (gǒu). This word is often used to characterize a person or a thing as damned or cursed. For example, an exasperated father might call his son, “狗東西! (Gǒu dōngxi! You damned thing!)”

Please note that 狼狗 (lánggǒu) and 狼犬 (lángquǎn) refer to a wolfhound like the German shepherd.

(hú) or 狐貍 (húli) is a fox, and foxes are known to be 狡猾 (jiǎohuá sly, cunning).

(hóu) is a monkey and (yuán) is an ape.

(měng) and 猛烈 (měngliè) mean fierce and vigorous. 凶猛 (xiōngměng) is being ferocious, like a lion, or 獅子 (shīzi).

(fàn) also takes on the “dog” radical. This is the word that means to offend someone or to violate the law. As a noun, it means a criminal.

Now, you’ve seen quite a few wods that take on the “dog” radical along with the negative connotations usually associated with wild animals. It is interesting to note that the Chinese refer to a number of tribes that reside along its borders by names that contain the “dog” radical or the “insect” radical. The rationale behind this could be attributed to the haughtiness of the ancient Han Chinese, who regarded all other people as barbarians. Or, this could be due to the fact that many of those tribes worshiped dog-like animals as their ancestors. If you would like to get the whole nine yards of the historical background, read the article at this link.

Look up other Chinese characters that make use of the “dog” radical. Don’t forget to review Chapter 6 in “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes” for the appropriate units to use for various animals and things.

Freedom and Compassion

On this great day, we gladly take a break from work and enjoy a barbecue with family or friends. We may even shoot off some fireworks. But, most importantly, this is the day to remind ourselves how fortunate we are to live in such a free, independent country.

Qīyuè sì rì shì Měiguó dúlì jìniànrì.
The Fourth of July is the American Independence Day.

Qīyuè sì rì shì Měiguó guóqìng rì.
The Fourth of July is the American National Holiday.

On this day, the Americans declared themselves an independent democracy, or 独立的民主國家. (dúlì de mínzhǔ guójiā). This day is about freedom, or 自由 (zìyóu freedom, liberty).

不自由, 毋寧死.
Bù zìyóu, wúnìng sǐ.
Give me Libery, or give me Death. (Patrick Henry)

Of course, Independence and Freedom for everyone can be possible only if we value Equality and have Compassion towards fellow human beings.

The Chinese word for equality is 平等 (píngděng). Just as you desire freedom, so do all the other people. One person’s freedom cannot infringe upon another person’s freedom and rights.

Compassion can be translated as 同情心 (tóngqíng xīn sympathy) or 怜悯心 (liánmǐn xīn pity, compassion). This is the virtue of (rén benevolence, humanity) that 孟子 (mèngzǐ Mencius) advocated. When we are compassionate towards other people, we will respect their independence and free choice, and are less likely to want to oppress or enslave them.

A story comes to mind about an ant repaying favor to a man who showed compassion toward it:

A young man from the Qing Dynasty on his way to take the imperial exam at the county level to become a 秀才 (xiùcái entry-level scholar). While taking a rest by a brook, he saw an ant struggling in the water, about to drown. The man took pity on the ant and shoved a leaf over to the ant. The ant crawled onto the leaf, and the man lifted the leaf and placed it on dry ground.

At the imperial exam, the young man wielded his calligraphy brush and quickly provided the correct answer to all the questions. However, in the hurry, he missed one of the four small marks in the Traditional Chinese Character for horse, (mǎ). At that time, there was no such thing as Simplified Chinese characters. The Traditional Chinese character for “horse” still contained four small tear-drop shaped marks to indicate the four legs of a horse. In the modern Simplified character, (mǎ), these four marks have been replaced by one horizontal stroke. After returning home, the young man reviewed the exam in his mind and was quite chagrined when he realized the error he had made. He knew that that one minor error like that would cost him his chance of passing the exam.

The examiner graded the papers. When he was working on the exam sheet of the young man, he saw an ant on it and tried to wave it way. However, that ant would not budge. The examiner let it be and continued reading the paper. The young man passed the exam because the ant happened to squat on the missing brush stroke on the “horse” character.

清朝 (Qīng Cháo) is the Qing Dynasty, which ended in 1911.

考试 (kǎoshì) is an examination or a test. This word also serves as a verb.

Wǒ míngtiān yào kǎoshì.
Tomorrow I have an exam to take.

考官 (kǎo guān) is a (government) examiner, and 考生 (kǎo shēng) is a student taking an exam.

通过 (tōngguò) means to pass through or to pass an examination. 考中 (kǎo zhòng) means having passed an exam and gained entry to the desired school or attained the desired position.

Niánqīngrén zài hé biān xiūxī.
The young man took a rest by the river.

Mǎyǐ zài shuǐ lǐ zhēngzhá.
The ant was struggling in the water.

Niánqīngrén jiù le Mǎyǐ.
The young man saved the ant.

Mǎyǐ bāngzhù Niánqīngrén kǎo zhòng xiùcái.
The ant helped the young man attain the entry-level scholar status.

Měiguó guóqìng rì kuàilè!
Happy Fourth of July!
(Happy American National Holiday!)

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