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.

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.

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:

Cáiyuán guǎng jìn niánnián jìn
Financial resources pour in abundantly year after year;

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.

Gōngxǐ fācái!
Have a happy and prosperous New Year!


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!

Learn Chinese word radical – King

You know that (tǔ) means soil or land. Add a horizontal stroke at the top, and you’d get the character for one who rules and oversees everything on the land, namely (wáng a king or an emperor). Specifically, 国王 (guówáng) is the king of a country, and 王国 (wángguó kingdom) is the country reigned by a king. If the monarch is a despot or a tyrant, we call him a 霸王 (bàwáng).

The word (jūn) refers to a gentleman or a monarch. If a monarch is inane or self-indulgent, he would be spoken of as a 昏君 (hūnjūn). One such foolish emperor is featured in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes, or 國王的新衣 (Guówáng De Xīn Yī). Click on this link if you would like to listen to this story in Chinese.

王朝 (wángcháo) is the royal court or a dynasty. For example, 清朝 (Qīng Cháo) is the Qing Dynasty.

大王 (dàwáng) can refer to a king or to a magnate. So, if you are an oil magnate, people will refer to you as 石油大王 (shíyóu dàwáng). And if you tend to be gluttonous, your family and friends may dub you 贪吃大王 (tān chī dàwáng). You might laugh it off and explain it away with:

我是大卫王 .
Wǒ shì Dàwèi Wáng.
I’m King David.

大卫王 (Dàwèi Wáng King David) sounds exactly the same as the playful term 大胃王 (dà wèi wáng a king with a large stomach).

皇宫 (huánggōng) is the royal palace. 王冠 (wángguān) is the royal crown. 皇帝 (huángdì) is the emperor and 皇后 (huánghòu) is the empress. 王子 (wángzǐ) is the prince and 公主 (gōngzhǔ) is the princess. Royalty is not limited to the human race. The queen bee is referred to as 蜂王 (fēngwáng), and the durian is referred to as the king of fruits, or 果王 (guǒ wáng). And there is also the 王牌 (wángpái), which is the trump card.

(wáng) is a common Chinese surname. Mr. Wang, or 王先生 (Wáng xiānsheng), would be the Chinese equivalent of Mr. King. Nevertheless, when we translate “Mr. King” into Chinese, we would use the transliteration of 金先生 (Jīn xiānsheng). Speaking of Chinese names, you can find some interesting notes on Chinese surnames at the Vacant Mountain blog site.

Let the king put on his crown, and he becomes the master indeed. (zhǔ) is the main and primary person or thing. 主人 (zhǔrén) is the master, the owner or the host. 主持人 (zhǔchírén) is the master of ceremony or a toastmaster. 民主政治 (mínzhǔzhèngzhì) means democracy.

主义 (zhǔyì) is a doctrine. The transliteration of chauvinism is 沙文主义 (shāwénzhǔyì).

(quán) means complete, total or whole and intact. 安全 (ānquán) means safe and sound, and 全部 (quánbù) means all or completely.

Tā shuō de huà wǒ quánbù tīngjiàn le.
I heard everything that he said.

(wàng) means to look at, to look over something or to look into the distance. 看望 (kànwang) is to call on someone. 期望 (qíwàng) is to hope for something, and 绝望 (juéwàng) is to despair. When you wish to purchase a binocular or a telescope, ask for a 望远镜 (wàngyuǎnjìng).

If you were asked to list four Chinese characters that sound the same except for their tones, the following group has the added bonus of having the king radical in all the characters.


(wāng) is an accumulation of liquid. It is also a Chinese surname.

(wǎng) means to treat someone unjustly, to wrong someone or to do something in vain.

Zhèngfǔ yuānwǎng le tā.
The government wronged him.

(wàng) means to be prosperous and booming.

Zhè jiā diàn shēngyi xīngwàng.
This store has booming business.

%d bloggers like this: