Chinese idioms involving the dog

Puppy Figurine


If you forgot to make a New Year’s resolution, now is your chance to make a Chinese New Year’s resolution. My resolution this year is to complete one of the books that have been sitting on my back burner for years. This one is a cookbook for people who are prone to the migraine disease. If you are a fellow migraineur, stay tuned. Hopefully the Year of the Dog will lend me the required energy to get this e-book out soon.

Speaking of dogs, the very first song my mother taught me when I was little had these lines:

一只哈巴狗
Yī zhī hǎbagǒu
A Pekingese dog

蹲在大门口
dūn zài dàmén kǒu
squats at the front entrance,

眼睛黑黝黝
yǎnjing hēiyōuyōu
with eyes shiny black,

想吃肉骨头
xiǎng chī ròu gútou
wanting to eat a meaty bone.

Dogs, or 狗 (gǒu), have been man’s best friend for about 3300 years. However, they have received mixed reviews in regards to their personality. Their unparalleled loyalty, or 忠诚度 (zhōngchéng dù), and capacity for love make them heart-winning house pets, or 宠物 (chǒngwù). On the other hand, when their mean streaks surface, they are cute no more, and in both English and Chinese the word “dog” also equates to “damned” or “cursed”. Therefore there are quite a few commonly used Chinese idioms that do not feature dogs in the best light.

In general, keeping a dog in a home is regarded as auspicious. When you learn of a friend’s adopting a pet dog, you could congratulate him or her by saying:

狗来福.
Gǒu lái fú.
Dog comes and brings good fortune.

Dogs have much keener sense of smell, sight and hearing than human beings. They can protect a family by barking or yapping at strangers. It is believed that they are able to tell the good guys from the bad as well as the rich and powerful from the poor and dejected. When someone puts you down, you are apt to think:

哼! 狗眼看人低!
Hng! Gǒuyǎnkànrén dī!
Humph! What a snob (like a dog)!

Sometimes the dog makes a mistake, as in the following story. 呂洞賓 (Lǚ Dòngbīn) was a scholar in the Tang Dynasty. He was well known for his studies in Taoism, medicine and various other subject matters as well as his kind heart. People ranked him among one of the eight great immortals of that time. It came to pass that one day Lǚ saw a starving dog. Out of sympathy, he gave the dog the dumpling that he was eating. The dog devoured the dumpling, but turned around and bit Lǚ. If someone ill rewards your kindness, you could tell others about it by using this saying:

狗咬呂洞賓, 不识好人心.
Ggǒuyǎolǚdòngbīn, bù shì hǎorén xīn.
Dog bites Lǚ Dòngbīn; can’t recognize a good heart when it sees one.

Often a dog will threaten people on the strength of its master’s power. 狗仗人勢 (Gǒuzhàngrénshì) means to bully someone under the protection of a powerful superior.

Now, if a dog bothers you, but it has a powerful master, or if the dog’s master is your friend, you would think twice before hitting the dog. The following idiom teaches you to look at the bigger picture instead of reacting hastily in some situations.

打狗看主人.
Dǎ gǒu kàn zhǔrén.
Mind whose dog it is before you strike.

Like a cornered dog, a person who has run out of resources might do something desperate. 狗急跳牆 (gǒujítiàoqiáng) means that, in a dire situation, a dog could jump over a wall.

Literally 打落水狗 (dǎluòshuǐgǒu) is to beat a drowning dog. Figuratively it means to deal a blow to a person who has lost power or favor, or to completely crush a defeated enemy.

If you made an inexcusable blunder at your job, your boss might level a stream of abusive language at you. This is likened to a jet of dog blood sprayed onto your head, as in:

老板把我骂了个狗血噴頭.
Lǎobǎn bǎ wǒ mà le gè gǒuxuěpēntóu.
The boss gave me a piece of his mind.

People who love to advise others but only have inept or even bad advice to offer are referred to as 狗頭軍師 (gǒutóujūnshī). 军师 (jūnshī) is a military counsellor.

The following expressions involve the dog plus another animal.

狗咬耗子 (gǒu yǎo hàozi) translates to: “Dog bites rat.” It refers to people meddling in other people’s affairs, which are none of their business.

If someone, for whom you have little regard, utters crude language, offers useless advice, or writes a mediocre article, you might make this disparaging remark to a third party:

狗嘴里长不出象牙.
Gǒu zuǐ li zhǎng bù chū xiàngyá.
A dog’s mouth can’t grow ivory.
(What can a dog do but bark?)

挂羊头卖狗肉 (guà yáng tóu mài gǒu ròu) means to display a goat’s head but sell dog meat, in other words, to bait and switch.

狐群狗党 (húqúngǒudǎng) refers to a gang of scoundrels (compared to foxes and wild dogs). 群 (qún) is a group of people, a crowd or a heard of animals. 党 (dǎng) usually refers to a political party.

You might describe a cold-blooded or unscrupulous person as having a wolf’s heart and a dog’s lungs, as in 狼心狗肺 (lángxīngǒufèi).

偷鸡摸狗 (tōu jī mō gǒu) means to engage in petty dishonest activities, such as stealing or having extra-marital affairs. 偷 (tōu) is to steal, pilfer or to be on the sly. 摸 (mō) is to feel or touch.

In traditional Chinese families, people are of the opinion that a daughter who has been married off must stick with her husband regardless of what kind of person he is. Remember that in earlier times, marriages were arranged by the parents, and Chinese women did not have a choice of whom they married.

嫁雞隨雞,嫁狗隨狗.
Jià jī suí jī, jià gǒu suí gǒu.
If you married a chicken, follow the chicken,
and if you married a dog, follow the dog.

It is interesting to note that the original saying goes like this:

嫁乞随乞,嫁叟随叟.
Jià qǐ suí qǐ, jià sǒu suí sǒu.
If you married a beggar, follow the beggar,
and if you married an old man, follow the old man.

No matter which way the saying is phrased, it teaches the women to 认命 (rènmìng), i.e. to accept their fate and try to work out the differences to keep the marriage in harmony. I think that goes for men as well.

Yeah, check out Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes
to learn additional Chinese expressions, idioms and sayings.

情人节快乐!
Qíngrén Jié kuàilè!
Happy Valentine’s Day!

春节快乐!
Chūnjié kuàilè!
Happy Spring Festival!

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Chinese idioms involving goats and monkeys

Prosperous New YearAs the Year of the Ram is transitioning into the Year of the Monkey, I thought it would be good for us to look at some of the Chinese idioms involving these animals.

(yáng) means sheep, ram or goat. Specifically, 綿羊 (miányáng) is the Chinese word for sheep, and 山羊 (shānyáng) are goats. Did you notice the two horns at the top of the Chinese character (yáng)?

A Chinese calligraphy or painting brush made of goat’s hair usually has the word 羊毫 (yángháo) marked on it. They are softer than 狼毫(lángháo), which is made of weasel’s hair.

羊毛(yángmáo) is fleece. The idiom 羊毛出在羊身上(yángmáochūzàiyángshēnshang) describes a situation in which a benefit actually came from one’s own contribution or expenditure. If a sheep receives a fleece blanket as a gift, it will behoove it to remember that the wool came from its own back. In other words, there is no free lunch.

A narrow meandering path is often referred to as 羊腸小道(yángchángxiǎodào). 羊腸(yángcháng) are a goat’s intestines.

掛羊頭賣狗肉(guàyángtóumàigǒuròu) means to display a goat’s head but sell dog meat instead, i.e. to bait and switch.

順手牽羊 (shùnshǒuqiānyáng) means to walk off with someone else’s belonging that is lying around.

亡羊補牢(wángyángbǔláo) means to repair the fence after a sheep is killed (such as by a cayote). This idiom could be used both ways – to say that it’s too late for the lost sheep, or to say that it’s not too late to try to save the other sheep.

Then there is the scapegoat, or 替罪羊 (tìzuìyáng) or 代罪羔羊 (dàizuìgāoyáng). 羔羊 (gāoyáng) is a lamb.

The Chinese character for monkeys is rather interesting in that on the right side is (hóu), which stands for a high official. On the left side is the radical for animals – (hóu). And an idiom comes naturally to mind. 沐猴而冠 (mùhóuérguàn) describes a worthless person who makes himself look impressive, like a monkey that was bathed and dressed in imposing attire. The man in the above image is shown in ancient Chinese government costume, indicating status and power. Now picture a monkey in this outfit.

Compared to 老虎(lǎohǔ tigers), 猴子 (hóuzi monkeys) are weak and powerless. However, when there are no tigers in the mountains, then a monkey could claim to be the king. Therefore the following saying makes fun of people whose abilities do not match the high position they hold.

山上無老虎,猴子稱大王.
Shān shàng wú lǎohǔ, hóuzi chēng dàwáng.

(tóu) is the head, and (nǎo) are the brains. 猴頭猴腦 (hóu tóu hóu nǎo) is an expression used to describe a youngster who is hyperactive, flighty and careless.

A futile attempt to save a situation is often likened to a monky that tries to scoop the moon out of the water but drowns in the process. (jiù) means to rescue, to save or to help.

這就像猴子救月.
Zhè jiù xiàng hóuzi jiù yuè.
This is tantamount to a monkey trying to rescue the moon.

殺雞儆猴 (shājījǐnghóu) or 殺雞給猴看 (shājīgěihóukàn) means to ‘kill a chicken in front of a monkey’, i.e to make an example out of someone. Punishing someone often serves the purpose of frightening others who have a similar plot in mind.

I came across an interesting flower that has an eerie resemblance to a monkey’s face. You can click on this link to see what a 猴蘭 (hóulán monkey orchid) looks like.

The greeting card above shows the following couplet:

財源廣進年年進;
Cáiyuán guǎng jìn niánnián jìn
Financial resources pour in abundantly year after year;

利路亨通日日通.
Lì lù hēngtōng rì rì tōng
Road to profits and riches goes smoothly day after day.

The Chinese believe that the Year of the Monkey brings vitality. Take the “k” out of “monkey”, and you’ll get “money”. May you have all the energy and $ you need to accomplish everything you want in this coming Chinese lunar year.

恭禧发财!
Gōngxǐ fācái!
Have a happy and prosperous New Year!

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”.

農夫被那孩子耍了.
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.

Man, a radical?

Have you noticed that 爷爷 (yéye grandpa) and 爸爸 (bàba papa, dad) share the radical (fù father)?

Now, check the following list and see if you can point out the common root shared by these words.

(rén person, human being)
(dà big, large)
(tài too, excessively, top-most)
(rén dog, canine)
(tiān sky, heaven)
(fū husband, man)

That’s right. The root of the above characters is (rén human being). Whereas 女人 (nǚrén) is a female person, or a woman, 男人 (nánrén) is a male person, or a man. The top part of the character (nán male person) is (tián), which means fields or cropland; and the lower part is (lì), which represents physical strength. So, men are those human beings who work in the fields.

If you first make a horizontal stroke then add a (rén) to it, then you would get the character (dà), which stands for “big” or “large”. We know that 小孩 (xiǎohái) is a child. The word for an adult is 大人 (dàrén).

Add an extra tick below (dà big, large), and you’d get the word (tài), which means “excessively” or “supreme”. As a bonus for learning this character, 太太 (tàitai), is how one refers to one’s wife. It also represents the title “Mrs.”.

It matter where you place the tick mark in a character. If you place it in the upper-right quadrant of (dà), you’d turn it into the formal word for “dog”, . The everyday word for “dog” is (gǒu).

It also matters whether a vertical stroke pokes out of a horizontal stroke or not. For example, make a horizontal stroke then add the character (dà) beneath it. You’d get something that is bigger than “big”, namely, the sky, (tiān). If you let the first stroke of (rén) poke out of the character for sky, then you’d have written a totally different character, (fū), which means “husband”, and also stands for “man”. 夫人 (fūrén) is a respectful way of addressing a lady. So, for example, 王夫人 (Wáng fūrén) is a more respectful way of addressing Mrs. Wang than 王太太 (Wáng tàitai).

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