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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Black and White in Chinese

Black and white contrast nicely in a graphic design.

Black and white contrast nicely in a graphic design.

As a color, (hēi) means black, and (bái) means white. Both of these words have a number of different meanings and connotations.

白菜 (báicài) is a general term for Chinese cabbage, of which there are several varieties. 大白菜 (dàbáicài) is the large and heavy variety with tightly-wrapped pale leaves. It is also known in the West as Napa cabbage or Chinese lettuce. The pale green and slender loose-leaf type is called 小白菜 (xiǎobáicài white rape). If you are after the smaller variety with crunchy dark-green leaves shaped like Chinese soup spoons, then ask for 青康菜 (Qīng Kāng cài) or 瓢儿菜 (piáor cài). What’s known as “bok choy” has very dark green leaves with sturdy white stalks. Actually, “bok” and “choi” are not Mandarin sounds. “choi” is the Romanization of the Cantonese pronunciation of (cài vegetables).

白米 (báimǐ) are rice grains from which the husks have been removed. It is the regular white rice sold in grocery stores. 蛋白 (dànbái) are egg whites, and 蛋白质 (dànbáizhì) are proteins. 白血球 (báixiěqiú) are white blood cells.

White is usually associated with cleanliness and purity, as in 洁白 (jiébái spotless). It is also associated with brightness or clarity, as in 白天 (báitiān daytime) or 明白 (míngbai clear, to understand), respectively.

现在我明白了.
Xiànzài wǒ míngbai le.
Now I understand.

坦白 (tǎnbái) means to be frank and candid.

坦白说, 他不适合这职位.
Tǎnbái shuō, tā bù shìhé zhè zhíwèi.
Frankly, he is not well suited to this position.

(bái) also means blank, gratis or in vain.

白痴 (báichī) is an idiot. On the other hand, 白吃 (báichī) means to freeload.

白白 (báibái) means “for nothing”. Do not confuse this with 拜拜 (báibái), which is the Chinese transliteration for “bye-bye”.

为了这件事, 我白白损失了一百元.
Wèile zhèi jiàn shì, wǒ báibái sǔnshī le yī bǎi yuán.
Because of this, I lost one hundred yuan for nothing.

苍白 (cāngbái) means pale or ashen. You could use it to describe gray hair or a wan face.

In contrast, 黑油油 (hēiyōuyōu) means jet-black, or black and shiny. 漆黑 (qīhēi) or 黑漆漆 (hēiqīqī) means pitch-black.

外面黑漆漆; 我不敢出去.
Wàimian hēiqīqī, wǒ bùgǎn chúqu.
It’s pitch-dark out there; I dare not go outside.

黑暗 (hēiàn) means darkness or dark, both in the sense of lacking illumination and in the sense of being shady or evil.

黑心 (hēixīn) is an evil mind. As an adjective, it means being unconscionable. You may have heard news stories about 黑心食品 (hēixīn shípǐn) produced by dishonest manufacturers who have no regard for the consumers’ health. These foods contain cheap non-food-grade ingredients or are tainted with toxic substitutes. One really needs to be careful about what one chooses to ingest.

黑帮 (hēibāng) is a sinister gang, and 黑手党 (hēishǒudǎng) are the Mafia. 黑名单 (hēimíngdān) is a blacklist, and 黑客 (hēikè) is another way of saying computer hackers. When you exchange news about corruption or other wrong-doings in a conversation, you might shake your head and add this remark:

天下乌鸦一般黑.
Tiānxiàwūyāyībānhēi.
The evil are all the same the world over.
(All ravens in the world are equally black.)

黑白 (hēibái) means black & white, or right and wrong. For example, 黑白照片 (hēibái zhàopiàn) is a black & white photo.

你们不可以黑白不分.
Nǐmen bù kěyǐ hēibáibùfēn.
You should not be without a sense of right and wrong.

清楚 (qīngchǔ) means clear and well-defined, easy to see or understand. Suppose an argument comes up regarding your rented apartment, and you are in the right, show your 房东 (fángdōng landlord or landlady) the rental agreement and say:

白纸黑字, 一清二楚.
Báizhǐhēizì, yīqīngèrchǔ.
Here it is in black and white, and crystal clear.

Soup, anyone?

Soups are an important part of Chinese meals. Whereas in western countries soup is usually served at the beginning of the meal, at a formal Chinese dinner the large soup bowl is normally presented as the last course. Sometimes, more than one soup would be served. In some Chinese provinces, people take so much pride in their soups that, when they invite a friend over for dinner, intead of saying:

来我家吃饭.
Lái wǒ jiā chīfàn.
Come to my home to have a meal.

they would say:

来我家喝汤.
Lái wǒ jiā hē tāng.
Come to my home to drink soup.

(fàn) is cooked rice. (mǐ) is raw, uncooked rice.
(chī) means to eat. (cháng) means to taste. 尝尝 (chángchang) is a colloquial way of saying “to taste a bit of”.
吃饭 (chīfàn) literally translates to “eat rice”, but this term genearlly means to have a meal.
(hē) means to drink. 喝水 (hē shuǐ) means to drink water.
(tāng) is a soup. Do you like 馄饨汤 (húntun tāng wonton soup)? (gēng) or 羹汤 (gēng tāng) is a thick soup, like a clam chowder or a bisque. (nóng) stands for thick, dense or creamy (when referring to a bisque).
(guō) is a pot or a pan used for cooking. So, 饭锅 (fàn guō) is a rice cooker, and 汤锅 (tāng guō) is a pot for cooking soup .
掀起 (xiān qǐ) is a verb that means to lift up.
(gài) is a cover or a lid. 锅盖 (guō gài) is the lid of a pot or pan. (gài) also serves as a verb that means to cover an object.
(ràng) means to let or to permit.
(xiāng) means good-tasting or good-smelling.
餐厅 (cāntīng) is a restaurant. 餐厅的 (cāntīng de) means “that which pertains to a restaurant”.
好像 (hǎoxiàng) means “seems like” or “be like”. 一样 (yīyàng) means the same, or equally alike. These two terms are often paired together when likening one thing to another.

Now, read the following sentences. Do you recognize our Sentence Patterns I and IV? If you would like to sing these lines to the tune of the lively “Lift your Veil” song, then repeat the last two lines.

掀起你的锅盖来.
Xiān qǐ nǐ de guōgài lái.
Lift up the lid of your wok.

让我尝尝你的汤.
Ràng wǒ chángchang nǐ de tāng.
Let me have a taste of your soup.

你的羹汤浓又香呀,
Nǐ de gēng tāng nóng yòu xiāng ya,
Your soup is so creamy and tasty.

好像那餐厅的一样好.
Hǎoxiàng nà cāntīng de yīyàng hǎo.
It’s as good as that from a restaurant.
(Your soup is like that from a restaurant, both being equally good.)

When you watched the video for the 泥娃娃 (Ní Wáwa Clay Doll) song referred to in my last post, did you not wish that pinyin were displyed along with the Chinese lyrics? The good news is that, with a little work, you can make your own lyrics sheet to use when singing along with that song. So, here is your homework assignment for this week: Create a lyrics sheet for the 泥娃娃 (Ní Wáwa Clay Doll) song by putting all the relevant Chinese characters into a Windows Notepad file. Follow the above format for placing the lines of Chinese characters and the corresponding pinyin. Type in your own English translation as well. As I mentioned before, you will need to use the Save As function to save the text file in the UTF-8 format. With the printout laid before you, it will be easier for you to practice writing the Chinese characters and sentences by hand.

For the above exercise, you can find all the needed characters in my previous posts, except for (zhe). This character has multiple meanings and uses. What concerns us now is its function to help indicate the progressive tense. For example, 喝著 (hē zhe) means “to be drinking”, and 爱著 (ài zhe) means “to be loving”. Therefore, 我永远爱著她. (Wǒ yǒngyuǎn ài zhe tā) translates to: “I’ll be loving her always”.

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