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”.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

Chūnjié kuàilè!
Happy Chinese Lunar New Year!

A joke retold in Chinese


Today I will tell you a modified version of a joke that I once read in the Reader’s Digest. I will provide just the Chinese text and let you figure out the joke by referring to the associated vocabulary list below.












一对 (yīduì) a couple, a pair
夫妻 (fūqī) man and wife.
因为 (yīnwei) because
吵架 (chǎojià) quarrel
已经 (yǐjīng) already
两天 (liǎng tiān) two
没有 (méiyǒu) have not (done something)
同 (tóng) with
对方 (duìfāng) the other party
讲话 (jiǎnghuà) speak, talk
必要 (bìyào) necessary
时候 (shíhòu) a point in time
他们 (tāmen) they
電郵 (diànyóu) or 電子郵件 (diànzǐyóujiàn) electronic mail (email)
话 (huà) words
传 (chuán) transmit
先生 (xiānsheng) husband
太太 (tàitài) wife
明天 (míngtiān) tomorrow
早上 (zǎoshàng) morning.
八 (bā) eight
点钟 (diǎnzhōng) o’clock
得 (děi) must, have to
去 (qù) go
公司 (gōngsī) company
开会 (kāihuì) attend a meeting
请 (qǐng) please
叫 (jiào) call
起来(qǐlái) or 起床 (qǐchuáng) get up, rise or get out of bed
第二天(dì’èr tiān ) the following day
已经 (yǐjīng) already.
非常 (fēicháng) very
生气 (shēngqì) angry
正要 (zhèng yào) just about to
责备 (zébèi) reproach
看到 (kàndào) see
现在 (xiànzài) now
七 (qī) seven

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Is it difficult to learn Chinese?

With respect to reading and writing Chinese, the answer is yes. Written Chinese is not based on an alphabet. Even though the Chinese characters could be broken down to around 220 radicals, there is not a simple rule to “spell” them in terms of the word radicals.

On the other hand, if you would just like to pick up a few words to make small talks, that should be as easy as learning to speak any other foreign language. You could even try to write down the words by using the Romanized pinyin system.

(kùnnan) and 困难 (kùnnan) mean difficult or difficulties, whereas (yì) and 容易 (róngyì) mean easy, easily or apt to.

Traditionally, the Chinese have adopted the view of 知易行难 (zhī yì xíng nán), viz. it is easy to know about something but often difficult to follow up with action.

On the night of his betrayal, 耶穌 (Yēsū Jesus) said to his disciples, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” This is akin to the Chinese idiom:

The heart is more than willing, but there is not enough strength or ability to do it.

We know how detrimental tobacco and alcohol can be to our heath, but many try and fail to quit. We may know all the words and material that need to go into a book, but it is not so easy to put everything together to make a finished book.

One could just as well argue for the other case – 知难行易 (zhī nán xíng yì). After you have learned a difficult skill or branch of knowledge, then it is easy to put it to use and complete a task. For example, once you know the commonly used chord progressions and understand the logic behind the harmonization of the scale tones and the chords, you are apt to be able to play a song by ear and improvise the harmony.

Similarly, you are more likely to be able to make meaningful statements in a language when you know the underlying grammar and the conventional syntax. The article at this link provides an interesting example.

As a noun, 今天 (jīntiān today), 昨天 (zuótiān yesterday), 明天 (míngtiān tomorrow) and 后天 (hòutiān the day after tomorrow) can be placed at the end of a sentence. For example,

Nà yào děngdào míngtiān.
That will need to wait until tomorrow.

However, when using these words as adverbs, do not place them at the end of a sentence. You could say,

Míngtiān wǒmén yào qù kàn diànyǐng.
Tomorrow we are going to the movies.

Or you could say,

Wǒmén míngtiān yào qù kàn diànyǐng.
Tomorrow we are going to the movies.

In English, you rarely hear: “We, tomorrow, are going to the movies.” Therefore, when translating Chinese into English, or English into Chinese, you will want to employ the conventional word order rather than doing it verbatim. Please consult Chapter 17 of “Learn Chinese through Songs Rhymes” for the correct placement of adverbs and adverbial phrases in a sentence.

难度 (nándù) means the degree of difficulty. 难倒 (nándiǎo) is to baffle or deter someone.

Zhègè wèntí bǎ wǒ nándiǎo le.
This problem (or issue) has me baffled.

难关 (nánguān) a crisis or a difficult critical juncture. 度过难关 (dùguò nánguān) means to have passed through a difficult juncture.

难过 (nánguò) means to have a hard time or feel bad.

Tā xīnli hěn nánguò.
She felt very bad.

When pronounced in the fourth tone, (nàn) means calamity or disaster. 灾难 (zāinàn) means calamity, catastophe or suffering due to a disaster. Therefore, refugees are referred to as 难民 (nànmín), and a refuge is called 避难所 (bìnánsuǒ).

轻易 (qīngyì) means easily or rashly.

易燃物 (yìránwù) are combustible or inflammable materials.

好不容易 (hǎo bù róngyì) means with great difficulty or effort. Often the (bù) is omitted, and you will just hear 好容易 (hǎoróngyì). One may get confused if one simply takes this phrase at face value.

我好容易来到这儿, 她却不肯见我.
Wǒ hǎoróngyì láidào zhèr, tā què bù kěn jiàn wǒ.
I took all the trouble to come here, but she refused to see me.

(yì) also means exchange or change.

贸易 (màoyì) means trade. Therefore, 自由贸易 (zìyóumàoyì) is free trade, and 国际贸易 (guójìmàoyì) is international trade.

If you have not heard of 易经 (Yìjīng The Book of Changes) before, you can read about it at this link.

What are the things you find most difficult while learning to speak, read and/or write Chinese?

Chinese idioms containing the flower character

Camellia Blossoms

Camellia Blossoms

It’s the first day of May, or 五月初一 (wǔyuè chū yī).

(chū) means initial, elementary, or for the first time, as in 初级 (chūjí elementary) and 初吻 (chūwěn first kiss). 初次 (chūcì), 首次 (shǒucì) and 第一次 (dìyīcì) all mean “for the first time”.

What joy it is to take a stroll in a garden where all flowers are in bloom. In Chinese, we use 百花齐放 (bǎihuāqífàng) to describe such a lovely scene.

Today we will learn a few commonly used words and idioms that involve the “flower” character, (huā).

The phrase 花枝招展 (huāzhīzhāozhǎn) is often used to describes women who are flamboyantly dressed, like showy flowers and foliage.

Wáng xiǎojie chuān de huāzhīzhāozhǎn.
Miss Wang is dressed to the nineth.

花花绿绿 (huā​huā​lǜ​lǜ) means colorful and showy.

花花世界 (huāhuāshìjiè) refers to the sensuous world.

花花公子 (huāhuāgōngzǐ) is a dude or a dandy.

花天酒地 (huātiānjiǔdì) describes the ways of people who indulge in wine and women, leading a life of decadence.

花言巧语 (huāyánqiǎoyǔ) are sweet, flowery words (said with an ulterior motive in mind).

天花乱坠(tiānhuāluànzhuì) is a phrase used to describe an extravagantly colorful description that can be likened to a shower of flowers from heaven. Please note that in medicine 天花 (tiānhuā) means measles.

眼花缭乱 (yǎnhuāliáoluàn) means to be dazzled and bewildered.

那儿的商品五花八门, 看得我眼花缭乱.
Nàr de shāngpǐn wǔhuābāmén, kàn de wǒ yǎnhuāliáoluàn.
The multifarious merchandise there bedazzled me not a little.

绣花 (xiùhuā) is to embroider. This word is also used as an adjective to characterize embroidered articles. For example, 绣花枕头 (xiùhuāzhěntóu) is an embroidered pillow.This term is often used as a pejorative, implying that a person looks handsome on the outside but is worthless inside.

明日 (míngrì) is the same as 明天 (míngtiān tomorrow). 明日黄花 (míngrìhuánghuā) are flowers past their prime. This is an expression used to refer to things that are stale and no longer of interest, such as older women who are no longer attractive.

(huā) as a verb means to spend or to expend.

花钱 (huāqián) is to spend money.

Nǐ jīntiān huā le bùshǎo qián ba?
You spent quite a bit of money today, didn’t you?

心血 (xīnxuè) means toil and efforts or painstaking care.

Tā huā le xǔduō xīnxuè jiàodǎo lóngyǎ xuésheng.
He put in a lot of time and effort teaching hearing and speech impaired students.

叫花子 (jiàohuāzi) is an informal word for beggars. The formal word is 乞丐 (qǐgài beggar).

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