Flattery in Chinese

By now you should know how to write (mǎ horses) with your eyes closed. Beware, though, that there are a few other characters that look somewhat similar. For example, (yǔ and) is a conjunctive that is used in much the same way as (hé and). (niǎo) are birds. (wū) means dark or black, and 乌鸦 (wūyā) are crows.

There is a popular story from Aesop’s Fables with the title “The Fox and the Crow”. In Chinese, it is called 狐狸和乌鸦 (Húli Hé Wūyā) or 狐狸与乌鸦 (Húli Yǔ Wūyā). In the story the crow lost a piece of meat that she had found after a long search, all because she fell for the fox’s flattery.

阿谀 (ēyú) and 奉承 (fèngcheng) both mean flattery. You can also use them as verbs. Informally, people use the expression 拍马屁 (pāimǎpì) to describe the action of flattering or fawning on someone. (pāi) is to pat, to clap or to bat. 屁股 (pìgu) is an informal word for buttocks. When talking with people outside your family, use the word 臀部 (túnbù buttocks) instead. 马屁 (mǎ pì) is short for 马屁股 (mǎ pìgu horse’s rump). So, patting the haunch of someone’s horse and praising the horse (no matter if the horse is worthy of the praise) is tantamount to flattering the owner. Although the term 拍马屁 (pāimǎpì) is used among friends, as a rule of thumb it’s best to avoid saying in public words that contain (pì intestinal gas). This shouldn’t be difficult to remember as it sounds exactly the same as the English word pee.

Tā shēng de kuà shì yīnwei tā dǒngde zěnme pāimǎpì.
He gets promotions because he knows how to flatter (the boss.)

At this link is “The Fox and the Crow” retold in Chinese. The narrative is delivered at an easy pace. You should be able to follow it with the help of the following word list.

山坡 (shānpō) means hillside.
树枝 (shùzhī) are branches of a tree.
(wō) is a nest, a pit for shelter, or a brood or litter of animals.
并且 (bìngqiě) means moreover or furthermore.
(fū) is to hatch or incubate.
(dòng) is a hole or a cavity.
好不容易 (hǎo bù róngyì) means with much effort.
找到 (zhǎodào) is to have found something.
(ròu) means meat, flesh, or pulp of fruits.
(diāo) is to hold and carry in the mouth.
足够 (zúgòu) means sufficient.
这时候 (zhè shíhòu) means at this moment or at this time.
肚子饿 (dùzi è) is to be hungry.
抬头 (táitóu) is to raise one’s heas and look up.
(xiāng) means fragrant or tasty.
(chán) means gluttonous.
流口水 (liú kǒushuǐ) is to salivate.
鬼主意 (guǐzhǔyì) is a wicked idea or scheme.
邻居 (línjū) are neighbors.
尊贵 (zūnguì) means honorable or respected.
作声 (zuò shēng) is to make a sound or utter words.
(pàng) means chubby.
仍然 (réngrán) is an adverb that means “still”.
羽毛 (yǔmáo) are feathers.
可怜的 (kělián) means pitiable.
麻雀 (máquè) is a sparrow.
(bǐ) is to compare.
(chā) means difference or being inferior.
再说 (zàishuō) here means “What’s more …”.
嗓子 (sǎngzi) refers to the voice box (larynx).
唱歌 (chànggē) is to sing.
欣赏 (xīnshǎng) means to enjoy or appreciate.
得意 (déyì) means to be proud of oneself.
(yǎng) means itchy or itching.
忍不住 (rěnbuzhù) means unable to hold back, or cannot help but do something.
掉到地上 (diào dào dì shàng) is for something to fall onto the ground.


Chinese words involving the horse



No, we are not yet done with talking about (mǎ horses).

马脚 (mǎjiǎo) are the horse’s legs. This word also refers to something that gives the game away, as in 露出马脚 (lùchūmǎjiǎo accidentally reveal one’s ulterior motives).

Tā zhōngyú lùchūmǎjiǎo lái le.
He finally gave the show away.

马蹄 (mǎti) are the horse’s hooves. This term is an alternative name for water chestnuts because they are hard as horse’s hooves. 马蹄铁 (mǎtitiě) is a horseshoe or a horseshoe magnet.

马尾 (mǎ wěi) is a horse’s tail. This term also refers to the ponytail hairstyle.

马鞍 (mǎān) is a saddle.

上马 (shàngmǎ) is to get on a horse, or to start a project. 下马 (xiàmǎ) is to dismount from a horse, or to stop a project.

威风 (wēifēng) means power and authority, or being awe-inspiring. When a new officer arrives and assumes duty, he may act extra harsh towards his subordinates to assert his authority. This show of power is referred to as 下马威 (xiàmǎwēi).

马上 (mǎshàng) is an adverb that means right away, at once or immediately. So, if your wife is urging you to do the dishes after dinner (this, of course, will never happen in a traditional Chinese family) when your eyes are riveted to the football game on the TV, you could holler back:

Wǒ mǎshàng jiù lái!
I’m coming!

马车 (mǎchē) is a horse-drawn carriage, and 马鞭 (mǎbiān) is a horsewhip.

人马 (rénmǎ) are troops, and 马队 (mǎduì) is a cavalry or a caravan.

Firing after the horse is called 马后炮 (mǎhòupào), which refers to a belated action or advice.

Fàng zhè mǎhòupào yǒu shénme yòng?
What’s the use giving this advice in hindsight?

In a game of Chinese chess, 马后炮 (mǎhòupào) is actually a very powerful placement of pieces, with the “cannon” (which can jump over another piece) positioned immediately behind a “horse”. When the “general” or “commander” is thus cornered, the game is basically over. Therefore, this term could also be construed as referring to the hopeless situation

牛马 (niúmǎ oxen and horses) are beasts of burden. It also refers to workers engaged in hard labor.

Tā gānxīn wèi tā de háizǐ men zuò niú zuò mǎ.
He willingly toils for the sake of his children.

马球 (mǎqiú) is the game of polo.

马戏团 (mǎxìtuán) is a circus.

赛马 (sàimǎ) is a horse race.

Finally, there is 马铃薯 (mǎlíngshǔ potato), which reminds me of the pot of stew cooking on the stove. Potatoes are also called 洋芋 (yángyù foreign taro). This may be a good time to review the names of food items in the Chapter 20 of the “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes” book.

Valentine’s Day in Chinese



We had three 烛光晚餐 (Zhúguāng wǎncān candlelight dinners) in a row, albeit not by choice. An overnight snow storm draped the entire landscape with 9 inches of whiteness, transforming our town into a magical cake slathered with a generous layer of frosting, and its features artfully decorated with icing. The pointed branches of the fir trees provided an elegant framework for showcasing the icy gracefulness. These were indeed beautiful to behold. We would have continued to enjoy this tranquil winter scene had the power not suddenly gone out after three days of incessant snowing. In our neck of woods, that also meant no gas and water. The eventual return of electricity ended the fun of camping by our wood stove. Life snaps back to the Internet mode.

During a lull in the snow storm, a colony of 知更鸟 (zhīgēngniǎo robins) graced the flowering cherry tree in our front yard. I snapped a few photos from the comfort of this side of the window. This I give as an excuse for the blurriness of the picture, which, on the other hand, lends it a sort of 朦胧的美 (ménglóng de měi hazy or veiled beauty).

Like the little birds, little children seem carefree and innocent while they are at play. Often they mimic grown-ups, perhaps in preparation for their own adulthood. Hence such children’s games and nursery rhymes as “He loves me, he loves me not” and “Lavender’s Blue”. Following is a translation of the first stanza of “Lavender’s Blue”, also known as “Lavender Blue”. I thought the rendition of “Lavender’s Blue” at this link is rather cute.

Xūn yī cǎo lán yòu xiāng,
Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly,
Lavender is blue and fragrant,

Xūn yī cǎo lǜ
Lavender’s green.
Lavender is green.

我当王, 喜洋洋,
Wǒ dāng wáng, xǐyángyáng,
When I am king, dilly dilly,
I’ll be the king, and joyfully

lái bǎ nǐ qǔ.
You shall be queen.
come to wed you.

In the second stanza, there is a question the translation of which you may find handy.

Shé shuō de?
Who said so?

Shì shé gàosù nǐ de?
Who told you so?

In Chinese, childhood sweethearts are often spoken of as 青梅竹马 (qīngméizhúmǎ). 青梅 (qīngméi) are green plums that are often pickled for snacking. These green fruits may be construed as referring to the immature young girls. 竹马 (zhúmǎ) is a bamboo pole or broom that young boys straddle and “ride” around as a “pretend horse”. Therefore, this term refers to the young boys.

Does this remind you of your own puppy love? Do you still miss your childhood sweetheart?

Qíngrén Jié kuàilè!
Happy Valentine’s Day!

Chinese idioms and expressions involving the horse

Happy New Year

Happy New Year

‘Tis the Year of the Horse. Horses have served people in transportation, farming, wars, horse races as well as leisurely horseback riding. No wonder there are so many Chinese words, expressions and idioms containing the character for horse, or (mǎ). We’ll look at a few examples today.

走马看花 (zǒumǎkànhuā) means glancing at the flowers while riding on horseback. You might use this expression to describe your short stay at a place, which did not afford you a good understanding of its people and culture. Or, you could use it while talking about the limited or superficial understanding you have gained on a subject through cursory observation or a brief study.

马不停蹄 (mǎbùtíngtí) means doing something without stopping. (tíng) means to stop. (tí) is a horse’s hoof.

他日夜赶工, 马不停蹄.
Tā rìyè gǎn gōng, mǎbùtíngtí.
He worked day and night, not stopping for a moment.

(biān) is a whip. As a verb, it means to whip. 快马加鞭 (kuàimǎjiābiān) means spurring a horse that’s already going very fast in order to speed up even more. In other words, going at top speed.

老马识途 (lǎomǎshítú) is an expression that gives due credit to an old horse that knows the way, or to an old hand who can lend his experience and offer guidance.

On the other hand, 盲人瞎马 (mángrénxiāmǎ) or 盲人骑瞎马 (mángrén qí xiāmǎ) describes the worrisome situation of a vision-impaired person riding a blind horse, about to plunge into disaster.

Zhè xiàng shì mángrén qí xiāmǎ.
This is like a blind leading a blind.

(liǎn) is the face, and (cháng) means long. It is obvious that the horse has an elongated face. However, the horse itself may not be aware of it. The expression 马不知脸长 (mǎ bùzhī liǎn cháng) is commonly used to criticize a person who is unable to see his or her own faults or shortcomings. It is usually uttered during a gossip behind the back of the target.

死马当作活马医 (sǐmǎdàngzuòhuómǎyī) is another interesting expression. This sentence translates to: “Try to heal a dead horse as if it were still alive.” It implies not giving up but trying everything possible to remedy a hopeless situation.

怎么办呢? 只好死马当作活马医了.
Zěnme bàn ne? Zhǐhǎo sǐmǎdàngzuòhuómǎyī le.
What to do? We can only try our best and see how it goes.

(fēng) is the wind. (niú) is a cow. Neither has anything to do with a horse. Therefore, 风马牛不相及 (fēngmǎniúbùxiāngjí) means totally irrelevant.

牛头不对马嘴 (niútóubùduìmǎzuǐ) means the horse’s jaws don’t fit into a cow’s head. This expression describes how the reply one gets does not answer the question one asked. The more formal expression is 答非所问 (dá fēi suǒ wèn).

单枪匹马 (dānqiāngpǐmǎ) means one spear and one horse, i.e. single-handed. Think of Gary Cooper in “High Noon”.

招兵买马 (zhāobīngmǎimǎ) is to recruit solders and purchase horses, i.e. to build an army or to recruit followers. Again, think of Gary Cooper in “High Noon”.

As the “ma” syllable occurs frequently in the English language, the (mǎ) character is used in the transliteration of quite a few English words. For example, 马达 (mǎdá) is a motor, 马拉松 (mǎlāsōng) is marathon, 马赛克 (mǎsàikè) means mosaic, and 巴哈马 (Bāhāmǎ) is the transliteration for the Bahamas. Also, 马来西亚 (Malaysia) is Malaysia, and 马来半岛 (Mǎlāibàndǎo) is the Malay Peninsula.

How do you think President Obama’s name should be translated into Chinese? 奥巴马 (Aòbāmǎ) or 欧巴马 (Oūbāmǎ)? Read this article in the Washington Post to see which side you are on.

马到成功 (mǎdàochénggōng) means to win success upon arrival. The horse is involved in this expression because it represents the troops in ancient times. What could be better than winning the battle as soon as you confront the enemy?

Zhù nǐ mǎdàochénggōng!
May you achieve instant success!

By the way, some of you may wonder why a pineapple is featured in the above photo. The pineapple is called “wěng lái” in the Taiwanese dialect. This happens to be the same as how you’d pronounce 旺来 (wàng lái) in Taiwanese. (wàng) means prosperity and (lái) means to come. Therefore, in Taiwan, the pineapple symbolizes the advent of prosperity.

Also, if you look closer at the card in the picture, at the bottom there is something beside the vase. It is actually an elongated piece for scratching one’s back. The everyday version is usually made of wood or plastic. For the emperor or the very rich, it may be made from jade or gold. As scratching one’s back makes one feel good, this s-shaped stick is nicknamed 如意 (rúyì as one wishes) and has become a symbol of good luck.