Chinese idioms and folk wisdom

Ripe Indigo Rose Cherry Tomatoes

Beautiful Ripened Indigo Rose Cherry Tomatoes

This spring, out of curiosity, I planted an interesting variety of tomato named “Indigo Rose”. The fruits maintained a deep indigo color with a green bottom until they finally matured. That was when the green portion turned orange-red. Only after I began harvesting the ripened fruits did I realize how this cultivar got its beautiful name. Why, a cute orange rose revealed itself on the tomato when I removed the tiny stem. There is no way I would let this season slip by without sharing the beauty of these tomatoes with you.

Now, what does this picture have to do with the idioms we will be talking about today? Well, here’s an idiom that is arguably relevant:

情人眼中出西施.
Qíngrén yǎn zhōng chū Xīshī.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

情人 (qíngrén) are lovers. In the lover’s eyes, the object of love compares to 西施 (Xīshī), who was touted in Chinese literature as the most flawless beauty in China.

I am halfway through reading ” Don Quijote 1 & 2 Español – English: Complete and Unabridged (Spanish Edition) “. I only read the English portion as I don’t speak Spanish, but I think this bilingual book can be very helpful for Spanish-speaking students who are learning English, or for English-speaking students who are learning Spanish because each paragraph in Spanish is followed by the corresponding paragraph in English. The conversations between the characters in this book are filled with idioms and wisecracks, and it struck me how so much of the same folk wisdom sprang up independently within different cultures.

Some Chinese refer to Don Quixote as 唐吉诃德 (táng jí hē dé). In Don Quixote’s imagination, Dulcinea was the 西施 (Xīshī), even though he had never set eyes on her. Such was the power of “pure and chaste” admiration from afar.

Following are a few idioms and sayings selected from the above-mentioned book, accompanied by their Chinese equivalent.

“a heart of marble”

铁石心肠
Tiěshíxīncháng
heart of iron and stone

“The wheel of fortune turns faster than a mill-wheel.”

风水轮流转
fēngshuǐ lúnliu zhuàn
Every dog has his day.

轮流 (lúnliu) means to take turns, such as while playing a card game. Good fortune does not always stay with the same people. This means you might get your turn yet.

“One devil is like another.”

天下乌鸦一般黑
Tiānxiàwūyāyībānhēi
Evil people are bad all the world over.
(All ravens are black.)

“Let us not throw the rope after the bucket.”

无济于事 or 无补于事
Wújìyúshì or wúbǔyúshì
of no avail

济 (jì) means to be of help or to benefit.
补 (bǔ) means to mend, repair, supply, make up for, nourish, or help.

“to have companion in trouble gives some relief”

同病相怜
Tóngbìngxiānglián
Fellow sufferers commiserate with each other.

“If the blind lead the blind, both are in danger of falling into the pit.”

盲人骑瞎马
Mángrén qí xiā mǎ
A blind man riding on a blind horse (heading to disaster)

“As we have loaves, let’s not go looking for cakes.”

知足长乐
Zhīzú cháng lè
Be contented with your lot and you will stay happy.

Please note that 足 (zú) has several meanings: foot, leg, sufficient, enough, ample, satisfied. 手足 (shǒuzú hands and feet) refers to brothers.

“come for wool and go back shorn”
偷鸡不得失把米.
Tōu jī bùdé shī bǎ mǐ.
Failed in attempting to to steal the chicken and lost a handful of rice in the process.

“Love has no greater enemy than hunger and constant want.”

爱情不能当面包.
Àiqíng bùnéng dāng miànbāo.
Love cannot not quell hunger like bread.

“All comparisons are odious.”

人比人气死人.
Rénbǐrén, qìsǐrén.
Comparing yourself with others will only make you angry.

“Tell me what company thou keepest and I’ll tell thee what thou art.”

物以类聚.
Wùyǐlèijù.
Like attracts like. (Birds of a feather flock together.)

“He who’s prepared has his battle half fought.”

有备无患
Yǒubèiwúhuàn
Preparedness averts peril.

准备 (zhǔnbèi) means to prrpare, or preparation.

我们要预先做好准备.
wǒmén yào yùxiān zuò hǎo zhǔnbèi.
We should make preparation beforehand.

This is particularly true when you have a test to take, or when the electric power might go out.

Now, let’s watch a video clip of “The Impossible Dream” (不可能实现的梦想 Bùkěnéng shíxiàn de mèngxiǎng) How can one help falling in love with such a beautiful melody, such as marvelous voice and such a brilliant performance?

By the way, if you have little ones, they might enjoy the Chinese nursery rhyme for counting frogs.

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.

这像是盲人骑瞎马.
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?

祝你马到成功!
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.

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