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.

Zǎochén tīngdào gōngjī tí jiào.
In the morning I hear the rooster crowing.

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.

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):

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

Happy New Year!


Chinese word for gifts or presents

Christmas Present 圣诞礼物

Christmas Present 圣诞礼物

Shèngdàn kuàilè﹗
Merry Christmas!

Christmas is a time for sharing, giving and charity. The Chinese word for presents is 礼物 (lǐwù). (wù) are things or substances. (lǐ) is used in a number of words that cover a range of meanings – ceremonies, rites, courtesy, manners and etiquette, gifts and presents.

典礼 (diǎnlǐ) is a ceremony or a celebration. 礼堂 (lǐtáng) is a place where such rites or ceremonies are carried out, e.g. an assembly hall or an auditorium.

物品 (wùpǐn) are articles or goods. Therefore, items offered at a ceremony, for a celebration, or for courtesy, are called 礼品 (lǐpǐn). 礼品 (lǐpǐn) and 礼物 (lǐwù) both refer to gifts and presents. Customarily, you would use 礼物 (lǐwù) when talking about a gift or a present that you give or receive. You would use the more formal word, 礼品 (lǐpǐn), when referring to the gift items in a general sense.

我送给苏珊一盒巧克力糖, 作为圣诞礼物.
Wǒ sòng gěi Sūshān yī hé qiǎokèlì táng, zuòwéi shèngdàn lǐwù.
I gave Susan a box of chocolates as Christmas present.

送礼 (sònglǐ) means to present a gift to someone. 回礼 (huílǐ) and 还礼 (huánlǐ) mean to give a gift in return. As 行礼 (xínglǐ) and 敬礼 (jìnglǐ) mean to formally salute someone, 回礼 (huílǐ) can also mean to return a salute.

婚礼 (hūnlǐ weddings) and 葬礼 (zànglǐ funerals) are the ceremonies one will likely have the occasion to attend a few times in life. For the former, monetary gifts are to be enclosed in red envelopes, while for the latter, white envelopes are normally used.

礼拜 (lǐbài) is a religious service or worship. 做礼拜 (zuòlǐbài) means worshiping at a church, which is called a 礼拜堂 (lǐbàitáng) or a 教堂 (jiàotáng). The days of the week are often referred to as the days of worship. For example, 礼拜六 (lǐbàiliù) means the same as 星期六 (xīngqīliù), which is Saturday (the sixth day of worship).

洗礼 (xǐlǐ) means baptism. It also refers to a severe test (of one’s character, ability, etc.).

We’ve previously come across the word 礼貌 (lǐmào politeness or manners). 有礼貌 (yǒu lǐmào) means polite and courteous. 没有礼貌 (méiyǒu lǐmào) means impolite or rude. The formal word for being ill-mannered is 无礼 (wúlǐ), which is not to be confused with 无理 (wúlǐ unreasonable, unjustifiable).

Nèi wèi fúwùyuán méiyǒu lǐmào.
That waiter has no manners.

非礼 (fēilǐ) means showing disrespect.

赔礼 (péilǐ) is to offer an apology. It means the same as 道歉 (dàoqiàn). If your kid has offended Mr. Wang, you could say:

Kuài qù xiàng Wáng xiānsheng dàoqiàn!
Go apologize to Mr. Wang right now!

子曰: 衣食足而后知礼义.
Zǐ yuē: Yī shí zú érhòu zhī lǐ yì.
Confucius said, “Only after one is fed and clothed can one be expected to observe propriety and justice.”

Here, (Zǐ) refers to 孔子 (Kǒngzǐ Confucius), and (yuē) is the classical word for “to say”.

(yī) are clothings and (shí) are foods.
(zú) means to have a sufficient amount of something.
而后 (érhòu) means after that, or then.
(zhī) means to know or to be aware of.
(yì) means justice or righteousness.

Confucius served as an adviser to a number of rulers in his time. Much of what he said thousands of years ago still rings true today.

Happy New Year in Chinese

It’s a brand new year again! The first order of business, of course, is to make one or more New Year’s resolutions. We all know that resolutions are easy to make and just as easy to break. It takes determination and great effort to keep one’s resolution and follow through. And what joy the rewarding outcome! Think of Breanna Bond.

新年 (xīnnián) is the New Year. 目标 (mùbiāo) is an objective or a goal. 计划 (jìhuà) is a plan or a project. 新年新计划 (xīnnián xīn jìhuà) means the new plans for the new year to reach your objective.

Please note that (huá), pronounced in the second tone, means to row a boat, as in 划船 (huáchuán).

志愿 (zhìyuàn) is an aspiration or an objective, and 决心 (juéxīn determination, resolution) is required to reach one’s goal. The following refer to the action of resolving to do something to accomplish an objective:

下决心 (xiàjuéxīn)
立下决心 (lì xià juéxīn)
立下志愿 (lì xià zhìyuàn)

Tā xiàjuéxīn tíngzhǐ xùjiǔ.
He resolved to stop drinking excessively.

她立下志愿, 一定要考上大学.
Tā lì xià zhìyuàn, yīdìng yào kǎo shàng dàxué.
She was determined to make it into college.

One way to keep your resolution is to make it a 座右铭 (zuòyòumíng), which is a motto or a maxim that one constantly keeps in mind. (zuò) is a seat, (yòu) is the right-hand side, and (míng) is an inscription.

With your heart set on a goal, you make a resolution; that’s not unlike making a “Cross my heart” schoolyard oath. And what do you get when you make a long stroke across the character for the heart, (xīn)? Yes, (bì), which means certainly or surely.

Mind this remark made by Confucius thousands of years ago:

Sān rén xíng bìyǒuwǒshī.
When three people walk together, among them there will definitely be a teacher for me.

This could also be interpreted as, “When I’m with two other people, I can definitely learn from at least one of them.” In other words, you can always learn something from anyone.

必须 (bìxū) is an adverb that means “must” or “have to”, while 必需 (bìxū) is an adjective that means “needed” or “necessary”. Even many Chinese incorrectly use these two words interchangeably. Below is a sentence to help you see the distinction.

Wǒmén bìxū mǎi zhèxiē bìxūpǐn.
We will need to purchase these necessities.

必定 (bìdìng) and 必然 (bìrán) both mean definitely or certainly.

不必 (bùbì) means “need not”.

Bùbì kèqi.
No need to be so courteous. (Make yourself at home.)

何必 (hébì) means “What’s the point of doing it?” or “There is no need to do it.” I remember walking with a friend of mine on the campus of a research institution years ago. Her surname is (Hé). Apparently a couple male colleagues got interested in my friend. They approached and asked what her name was. She answered impatiently,

Hébì wèn!
No need to ask!

From then on, my friend became known by the nickname 何必问 (Hé Bìwèn).

未必 (wèibì) means “not necessarily”.

What’s your New Year’s resolution? Or, perhaps your New Year’s wish or aspiration, 愿望 (yuànwàng)? If you email it to me in English, I could include a Chinese translation of the first ten submissions in my next blog.

Happy New Year in everyday Chinese is:

Xīnnián kuàilè!
Happy New Year!

Or, you could say,

恭喜! 新年好!
Gōngxǐ! Xīnnián hǎo!
Congratulations! Have a nice New Year!

Plain rice or fried rice?

As you know, rice is the staple food in many parts of southeastern Asia. (mǐ) is uncooked rice. (This character is also used to represent the distance unit, “meters”.) Cooked rice is called (fàn), which sounds quite similar to “fun”. Plain cooked rice is 白饭 (báifàn), and stir-fried rice is 炒饭 (chǎo fàn). Please don’t go around announcing that you like to 吃白饭 (chī báifàn) as this expression can also be interpreted as the equivalent of 白吃 (bái chī), which means eating without paying, or bilking others. It is safe to say:

Wǒ xǐhuān chī bái mǐfàn.
I like to eat plain rice.

Another expression to be careful about is 吃软饭 (chī ruǎn fàn eat soft rice), which means to sponge off women. It is safe to say:

Wǒ xǐhuān chī bǐjiào ruǎn de fàn.
I like to eat rice that’s on the soft side.

Having thousands of years of history behind them, the Chinese, have taken the plain rice grains and turned them into a large variety of delectable food products. Rice porridge is called (zhōu congee) or 稀饭 (xīfàn). When the rice is cooked to a paste, then it’s called (hú). This word can also be used as a verb, i.e. “to glue with a paste”.

(fěn) is a powder. When rice is ground into powder and made into a vermicelli, it is called 米粉 (mǐ fěn rice flour noodles). On some restaurant menus, you may find 炒粉 (chǎofěn), which refers to stir-fried rice noodles.

Rice powder can also be used to make a variety of rice cakes, generally referred to as (gāo). As I mentioned before, the sticky rice cake, called 年糕 (niángāo), is customarily served for the Lunar New Year. On the other hand, 蛋糕 (dàngāo cakes) usually refer to cakes made from wheat flour. What happens when you’ve added too much sugar, or (táng), into the cake?

Zhègè dàngāo tài tián le!
This cake is too sweet!

Please refer to the book,”Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes”, for the names of other food items. There you will also find a song sung to the tune of “Hot Cross Buns”.

(lì) are grains or granules. It is also used as a unit of counting small round items.

(cū) means coarse, grainy, thick or wide.

(hé) refers to the rice plant. This character is a radical found in many other Chinese characters. For example, you’ve most likely seen the word (hé) used as the conjunctive “and”. As an adjective, this word means to be gentle or congenial. As a noun, it means the sum. As a verb, (huò), means to mix, and is pronounced in the fourth tone.

When you harvest the rice by cutting the pants, profit will be gained. So, when you add the刂(dāo knife) radical to (hé), you will get (lì), which means sharp, beneficial, a profit or an interest (from savings or investment).

Lián běn dài lì yīgòng sān qiān liù bǎi yuán.
Including principal and interest, altogether it’s 3600 yuan.

便利 (biànlì) means convenient. 顺利 (shùnlì) means going smoothly or without a problem. 利用 (lìyòng) is a verb that means “to make good use of” or, in the negative sense, “to exploit”.

(dào) are the rice plants in the paddy.
(xiāng) means fragrant or savory. As a noun, it refers to incense.
(chèng) are scales. It can be used as the verb “to weigh”.
(shuì) are duty and taxes.
(jì) are the seasons.

Yī nián yǒu sìjì.
There are four seasons in a year.

One sweltering day during the Tang Dynasty, a farmer was laboring in his rice field. A poet, named 李绅 (Lǐ shēn), happened by. He took sympathy on the farmer, and the inspiration resulted in this well-known poem:

Chú hé rì dāng wǔ,
Hoeing in the rice field at midday,

Hàn dī hé xià tǔ.
Sweat dripping past the rice onto the soil.

Shéi zhī pán zhōng cān
Who’d have known the food on the plate,

Lì lì jiē xīnkǔ.
Each and every grain means toil.

To hear a reading of this poem, please click here.

May you all see the fruit of your labor in the coming year.

Xīnnián kuàilè!
Happy New Year!

What’s the Chinese word for “Hi!”?

The word “Hi” was not part of the traditional Chinese vocabulary. Following the teaching of Confucius, the majority of rulers endeavored to maintain an orderly and structured society in China. Consequently, within any group, no matter how small, there was a “pecking order” to be observed. The subjects would greet the rulers first, before the ruler would nod his approval. The students would say “Good morning.” to the teacher first, before the teacher would reciprocate. In a family, the son or daughter would greet their parents first, and not the other way around. In the same way, an elder brother would expect his younger siblings to salute first. And, of course, an employee would be remiss in not greeting his boss first. The subordinates would employ such standard greetings as: 早安 (zǎoān Good morning.), 你好 (nĭ hǎo Good day; good afternoon.), and 晚安 (wǎnān Good night.). A casual “Hi!” just wouldn’t do. That would be too democratic.

In fact, (Hāi) is a contemporary term borrowed from English. It is mostly used among the young and not so young people who have adopted the Western ways. Similarly, 拜拜! (bái bái) is the Chinese transliteration of “Bye-bye!”. The word (bài) actually means to make obeisance to one’s elders or to perform a religious worship. You could regard this character as representing two hands brought together in worship.

The more courteous form of 你好 (nĭ hǎo) is 您好 (nín hǎo). The lower part of the word (nín) is (xīn), which sounds exactly like the word (xīn new) in 新年快乐 (xīnnián kuàilè Happy New Year!). (xīn) is the heart. It is added to (nĭ you) to represent sincere respect.

Until next time, 再见! (zàijiàn See you! Good-bye!).

Sticky New Year?

Call it the Year of the Rabbit or the Year of the Hare, as you please. The Chinese Lunar New Year begins today. Let’s hope that this will be a peaceful year. And, of course, we want more. We also want the new year to bring us well-being, happiness and prosperity. In fact, the most popular new year’s greetings among the Chinese are:

新年好 xīnnián hǎo Be Well on New Year

新年快乐 xīnnián kuàilè Happy New Year

恭禧发财 gōngxǐ fācái Congratulations on Auspiciousness and Prosperity

You already know that (hǎo) means “good”. You could have guessed that (xīn) means “new” and (nián) means “year”. It’s a cinch to say 新年好 (xīnnián hǎo). You could also try 新年快乐 (xīnnián kuàilè Happy New Year), where 快乐(kuàilè) means “happiness”. 发财 (fācái) means to get rich.

More often than not, when the Chinese people make the rounds to visit their relatives and friends on this day, they will wag their clutched hands in front of their chest and holler jubilantly:
恭禧恭禧! (gōngxǐ gōngxǐ Congratulations!), or 恭禧发财! (gōngxǐ fācái Congratulations! Hope you’ll get rich!)

And, don’t forget about promotions. (People’s wants and desires have no bounds.) It’s customary for the Chinese to serve a sweet rice cake on the first few days of the Lunar New Year. This 年糕 (niángāo New Year cake) is made of glutinous rice flour. Unlike a sponge cake or even a dense pecan pie, this is a viscous, sticky mass that cools down to a rocky hard slab. What’s the significance of eating this particular cake? Well, the word for cake is (gāo), which sounds exactly like (gāo), the word for high or height, which indicates a high position. The word (shēng) means to rise or to elevate. So, 高升 (gāo shēng) means to be elevated to a high position. Therefore, 年糕 (niángāo) is taken to represents the phrase 年年高升 (nián nián gāo shēng), or “promotion year after year”. The Chinese believe that things you do on the first few days of the Lunar New Year have important bearing on the rest of the year. The hope is that by eating this cake at the start of the year, you will be more apt to get a promotion this year. By the same token, there are also things that one should not say or do during these crucial days for fear that they would bring bad luck. This is, of course, pure superstition.

As it turns out, (nián year) is a homonym of (nián), which means “sticky”. You can use it as a mnemonic for sounding out the more complicated character (nián). Actually, the word (zhān) has the exact same meaning as (nián). Many Chinese use these two characters interchangeably.

Please don’t get me wrong. The sticky sweet rice cake is actually a delicious treat. You’d cut it into small wedges or sticks, dip the pieces in beaten egg then deep fry them in hot oil. Take a small bite. When you try to pull the remainder away from your mouth, it will draw out like stringy melted cheese. The sweet, warm, soft and moist interior part of the rice cake, combined with the rich aroma of the deep-fried exterior, rewards your palate and heart with an indescribable fulfilling sensation.

I have a simple recipe for making the sweet rice cake but I won’t give it to you. For one thing, it’s about as wholesome as a glazed Krispy Kreme donut. Secondly, it’s so sweet that most likely one small wedge of it will satisfy your sweet tooth, and you’d wonder what to do with the leftover. Last but not the least, it’s a potential choking hazard for those of you who are uninitiated and fail to take small bites of this sticky dessert and chew well.

Instead, I’ll give you an assignment – Look up the Chinese character for rabbit in your dictionary, textbook or supplemental Chinese instruction book. (The answer will be in my next weekly post.)

May you all have a new year filled with peace, health, happiness, prosperity, and promotions, too!

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