Year of the Ox and Chinese words and idioms associated with the ox

Miss Cow

Yes, Miss Cow!

In Taiwan, many names of places and people are Romanized using the Wade–Giles system, which spells the G sound as K. Therefore, (Gāo), the last name of one of my classmates at an English-speaking girls high school is spelled as Kao. As our science teacher chose to address us by our last names, each time he called upon my friend to answer a question, all we heard was: “Miss Cow, Miss Cow!”

The Chinese generally respect oxen and cows as loyal and hard working beast of burdern. Many from the older generations refuse to eat beef for this reason. On the other hand, just like in western culture, oxen and cows are not considered intelligent animals. The Chinse word for “dumb ox” is 笨牛 (bèn niú). In the movie “The Butterfly Lovers”, when it finally dawned on the main male character that the “pal” he adored had been dropping hint after hint that she was actually a young lady disguised as a young man, he slapped his own forehead and exclaimed,

我是個大笨牛, 大笨牛!
Wǒ shì ge dà bèn niú, ge dà bèn niú!
I’m such a big fool, such a big fool!

Soon it will be 牛年 (niúnián), or Year of the Ox. Per the Chinese zodiac, people born in the Year of the Ox tend to be strong, diligent, reliable, faithful and patient. However, they can also be opinionated and stubborn, as indicated by the expression 牛脾气 (niúpíqi) representing bullheadedness, stubborn temperament or obstinacy.

(niú) is a word radical that appears in many Chinese words, such as (wù thing, matter, substance) or (mù to tend to a herd.) Can you find a few other words that take on this radical?

公牛 (gōngniú) is a bull or an ox. 母牛 (mǔniú) is a cow. 乳牛 (rǔniú) is a dairy cow. 水牛 (shuǐniú) is a water buffalo.

黄牛 (huángniú) is a yellowish brown ox usually employed in pulling carts. This word has a couple special connotations. As a noun, it could refer to a ticket scalper. In Taiwan, it can be used as a verb that means to fail to keep one’s word or to fail to show up.

好的, 你明天来接我; 不可以黄牛喔!
Hǎode, nǐ míngtiān lái jiē wǒ; bù kěyǐ huángniú ō!
All right, come tomorrow to pick me up; don’t weasel out!

犀牛 (xīniú) is a rhinoceros, and a tractor is referred to as 铁牛 (tiěniú iron ox).

蜗牛 (wōniú) is a snail. Do you think the head of a snail resemble that of an ox?

牛肉 (niúròu) is a general term for beef. 牛排 (niúpái) is a beefsteak, while 牛尾汤 (niúwěitāng) is an oxtail soup.

牛奶 (niúnǎi) is milk, and 酸牛奶 (suānniúnǎi) is yogurt or sour milk. Those of you with a sweet tooth should be interested to know that toffees are called 牛奶糖 (niúnǎitáng). (rǔ) is a more formal word for milk; it also refers to breasts. So, 牛乳 (niúrǔ) is cow milk, while 乳房 (rǔfáng) are breasts, and 乳癌 (rǔ ái) is breast cancer.

Butter is called 奶油 (nǎiyóu) in Taiwan, 牛油 (niúyóu) in Hong Kong, and 黃油 (huángyóu) in China. So, in Taiwan, cream is 鲜奶油 (xiǎn nǎiyóu), while elsewhere it is simply referred to as 奶油 (nǎiyóu). When working with a recipe in Chinese that includes butter or cream, make sure you know what is actually called for.

牛顿 (niúdùn) is the transliteration of the name of the physicist Sir Isaac Newton.

牛郎 (niúláng) the cowherd in the well-known legend “the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl”.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cowherd_and_the_Weaver_Girl

牛仔 (niúzǎi) is a cowboy, and jeans are called 牛仔裤 (niúzǎikù).

牛痘 (niúdòu) refers to cowpox or small pox.

吹牛 (chuīniú) means to boast, brag, or talk big.

我哥哥最爱吹牛.
Wǒ gēgē zuì ài chuīniú.
My elder brother loves to brag.

牛饮 (niúyǐn) means to swig or to drink like a fish.

牛角尖 (niújiǎojiàn) is the tip of a ox horn. 钻牛角尖 (zuānniújiǎojiān) means to continue headstrong into a blind alley, or to split hairs to study an insignificant or insoluble problem.

我姐姐爱钻牛角尖.
Wǒ jiějie ài zuānniújiǎojiān.
My elder sister loves to split hairs on unimportant details.

牛马 (niúmǎ) are oxen and horses, i.e. beasts of burden. 做牛做马 (zuò niú zuò mǎ) means to toil like a slave.

父母甘心为子女做牛做马.
Fùmǔ gānxīn wèi zǐnǚ zuò niú zuò mǎ.
Parents are willing to toil for the sake of their children.

风马牛不相及 (fēngmǎniúbùxiāngjí) means having absolutely nothing to do with each other, such as two totally unrelated subject matters.

牛头不对马嘴 (niútóubùduìmǎzuǐ) translates to “The cow’s head does not match the horses’ mouth.” This expression is used to comment on an irrelevant answer received for a question asked.

杀鸡用牛刀 (shājīyòngniúdāo) means using an ox-cleaver to kill a chicken, i.e. breaking a butterfly on the wheel.

对牛弹琴 (duìniútánqín) literally means to play the lute to a cow. This idiom describes the situation in which one has choosen the wrong audience.

同他谈论艺术就像对牛弹琴.
Tóng tā tánlùn yìshù jiù xiàng duìniútánqín.
Discussing fine art with him is like casting pearls before a swine.

Given a choice, would you rather be the head of a small business or a peon in a large corporation?

宁为鸡首, 不为牛后.
Níng wèi jī shǒu, bù wéi niú hòu.
I would rather be the head of the chicken than the tail of a cow.
(I would rather be the leader of a small organization than a follower in a big organization.)

As you may already know, most Chinese refer to the Chinese Lunar New Year as 春节 (chūnjié), which translates to Spring Festival. However, it has nothing to do with the spring break observed at universities and schools. In Chinese, the spring vacation is called 春假 (chūnjià).

春节快乐!
Chūnjié kuàilè!
Happy Chinese Lunar New Year!

Chinese idioms involving the chicken

Crowing Rooster

Crowing Rooster

Wake up! Wake up! The Year of the Rooster will soon be upon us!

My grandfather lived on the countryside in his retirement. When I was little, I sometimes stayed over at his place. Every morning, the neighboring farmer’s rooster would hoist himself on the roof of the chicken coop, stretch his neck out as far as it would go and let out a series of three-syllable “O-O-O” cries to wake everyone up, his face red from the excessive straining. To the Chinese, the rooster is far from being “chicken”. Rather, it is the symbol for diligence, dutifulness and righteousness. Naturally, a bit of cockiness goes with that as well.

(jī) refers to all chickens. 公鸡 (gōngjī male chicken) is a rooster and 母鸡 (mǔjī female chicken) is a hen. Little chicks are called 小鸡 (xiǎojī). Please note that 田鸡 (tiánjī) is not a field chicken, but a frog.

(tí) is to crow, to cry or to weep aloud.

早晨听到公鸡啼叫.
Zǎochén tīngdào gōngjī tí jiào.
In the morning I hear the rooster crowing.

晚上听见婴儿啼哭.
Wǎnshàng tīngjiàn yīng’ér tíkū.
In the evening I hear the baby crying.

When talking about the eyes of chicken, say 鸡的眼睛 (jī de yǎnjing) rather than 鸡眼 (jīyǎn) as the latter refers to a corn that could form on one’s feet.

It is interesting that the Chinese talk about chicken bumps, 鸡皮疙瘩 (jīpígēda), rather than goose bumps.

鸡毛 (jīmáo) is chicken feather, light and insignificant. Therefore 鸡毛蒜皮 (jīmáosuànpí chicken feathers and garlic skins) means trivial things.

In ancient China the army made use of an arrow-shaped token of authority. Whoever saw this 令箭 (lìngjiàn) must obey the order the carrier read from it. Now, if you don’t look closely, you might mistake a large rooster’s tail feather for that arrow-shaped token. Therefore the idiom 拿着鸡毛当令箭 (ná zhe jīmáodānglìngjiàn) is often used to describe a situation in which a person makes a big fuss about a superior’s casual remark and justifies actions that lead to undesirable results. This idiom also applies to a person who takes advantage of other people through false authority.

As the rooster’s tail is made up of multiple feathers of different colors, a mixed alcoholic drink is called 鸡尾酒 (jīwěijiǔ cocktail).

鸡蛋 (jīdàn) are chicken eggs, and we all know that eggshells are quite fragile, hence the idiom used in the following sentence.

这就像是鸡蛋碰石头.
Zhèjiù xiàng shì jīdànpèngshítóu.
This is like knocking an egg against a rock (no chance to prevail).

Normally eggs sold at the market would not come with bones. However, a nitpicking person might still pick an egg over and try to find a bit of bone in it. The action of intentionally trying to find trivial faults in others is referred to as 鸡蛋里面挑骨头 (jīdàn lǐmiàn tiǎo gútou).

(shǒu) is the classical word for the head or a leader.

When pronounced in the second tone, the word (wéi) means (shì to be). Would you rather be the leader of a small company than a minion in a large corporation? If so, the following saying reflects your mentality.

宁为鸡首, 不为牛后.
Níng wéi jī shǒu, bùwéiniúhòu.
I’d rather be the head of a rooster than the behind of an ox.

鸡犬不宁 (jīquǎnbùníng) describes general turmoil, in which even fowls and dogs are not at ease. This idiom can be used to describe wartime or a disturbed condition at home.

他们动辄吵架, 闹得家里鸡犬不宁.
Tāmen dòngzhé chǎojià, nào de jiā lǐ jīquǎnbùníng.
They quarrel frequently, upsetting the entire household.

As you can see from the above two sentences, the word (níng) can stand for.
宁愿 (nìngyuàn prefer, would rather) or 安宁 (ānníng peaceful, calm).

Chickens are not known for their physical strength. 手无缚鸡之力 (shǒuwúfùjīzhīlì lacking the strength to truss up a chicken) is an expression used for describing a weak person.

It follows that one should not need a hefty ox cleaver to butcher a chicken. If someone uses a sledge hammer to crack a nut, a bilingual person might laugh at him or her and say, “杀鸡用牛刀 (shājīyòngniúdāo). That’s an overkill.”

Last year we talked about 杀鸡儆猴 (shājījǐnghóu), which means to kill the chicken to frighten the monkey. This method of warning by example has often been employed in the political arena.

杀鸡取卵 (shājīqǔluǎn kill the hen to get the egg) is the equivalent of the western saying: “Kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.” Let’s not be shortsighted, but spare the poor hen.

And forget about stealing the chicken. The chicken might get away and you would have wasted the rice that you scattered on the ground to attract it. If you went for wool and came back shorn, people might say (with a smirk):

偷鸡不着蚀把米.
Ttōujībùzháoshībǎmǐ.
Failed to steal the chicken and lost the grains of rice.

A wooden chicken is stiff and unable to move. The Chinese use this term to describe a person who is stunned, dumbfounded or transfixed with fear or amazement.

他站在那儿, 呆若木鸡.
Tā zhàn zài nàr, dāiruòmùjī.
He stood there thunderstruck.

落汤鸡 (luòtānjī) means a drenched chicken, another chicken expression used for describing a person.

雨下得很大, 把他淋得像只落汤鸡.
Yǔ xià de hěndà, bǎ tā lín de xiàng zhī luòtānjī.
There was a downpour, and he was drenched through.

Please note that the unit to use when referring to most animals is (zhī), rather than (gè). Therefore, you would say 一只鸡 (yī zhī jī) and not 一个鸡 (yīgè jī). For a discussion of the commonly used units of measure in Chinese, please see Chapter 6 of “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes”.

As you may have found out, many of the four-character Chinese idioms are based on legends, anecdotes or historical events and personages. Therefore one should be careful not to take them at face value. For example, 聞雞起舞 (wén jī qǐ wǔ) does not mean “Smell the aroma of the fried chicken, get up and dance with joy.” Here, means to hear, and stands for 舞劍 (wǔ jiàn), i.e. practicing martial art using a sword. The idiom 聞雞起舞 (wén jī qǐ wǔ) is based on an anecdote about a famous general, 祖逖 (Zǔ tì), of the Jin Dynasty who rose at the crack of dawn each day to do physical exercises to strengthen his body. This general was a fine example of diligence in one’s studies and self-improvement. If you assume this attitude in studying Chinese or any other subject, you should see good progress in due time.

Are you ready to celebrate the Chinese lunar New Year? I think the lively song at this link will help get you in the mood.

If you would like to play this tune on your piano keyboard, here is a simple music sheet for Gong Xi Gong Xi I put together using MuseScore: gong_xi_gong_xi

恭贺新禧!
Gōnghèxīnxǐ!
Happy New Year!

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