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!

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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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