Chinese idioms involving the dog

Puppy Figurine


If you forgot to make a New Year’s resolution, now is your chance to make a Chinese New Year’s resolution. My resolution this year is to complete one of the books that have been sitting on my back burner for years. This one is a cookbook for people who are prone to the migraine disease. If you are a fellow migraineur, stay tuned. Hopefully the Year of the Dog will lend me the required energy to get this e-book out soon.

Speaking of dogs, the very first song my mother taught me when I was little had these lines:

一只哈巴狗
Yī zhī hǎbagǒu
A Pekingese dog

蹲在大门口
dūn zài dàmén kǒu
squats at the front entrance,

眼睛黑黝黝
yǎnjing hēiyōuyōu
with eyes shiny black,

想吃肉骨头
xiǎng chī ròu gútou
wanting to eat a meaty bone.

Dogs, or 狗 (gǒu), have been man’s best friend for about 3300 years. However, they have received mixed reviews in regards to their personality. Their unparalleled loyalty, or 忠诚度 (zhōngchéng dù), and capacity for love make them heart-winning house pets, or 宠物 (chǒngwù). On the other hand, when their mean streaks surface, they are cute no more, and in both English and Chinese the word “dog” also equates to “damned” or “cursed”. Therefore there are quite a few commonly used Chinese idioms that do not feature dogs in the best light.

In general, keeping a dog in a home is regarded as auspicious. When you learn of a friend’s adopting a pet dog, you could congratulate him or her by saying:

狗来福.
Gǒu lái fú.
Dog comes and brings good fortune.

Dogs have much keener sense of smell, sight and hearing than human beings. They can protect a family by barking or yapping at strangers. It is believed that they are able to tell the good guys from the bad as well as the rich and powerful from the poor and dejected. When someone puts you down, you are apt to think:

哼! 狗眼看人低!
Hng! Gǒuyǎnkànrén dī!
Humph! What a snob (like a dog)!

Sometimes the dog makes a mistake, as in the following story. 呂洞賓 (Lǚ Dòngbīn) was a scholar in the Tang Dynasty. He was well known for his studies in Taoism, medicine and various other subject matters as well as his kind heart. People ranked him among one of the eight great immortals of that time. It came to pass that one day Lǚ saw a starving dog. Out of sympathy, he gave the dog the dumpling that he was eating. The dog devoured the dumpling, but turned around and bit Lǚ. If someone ill rewards your kindness, you could tell others about it by using this saying:

狗咬呂洞賓, 不识好人心.
Ggǒuyǎolǚdòngbīn, bù shì hǎorén xīn.
Dog bites Lǚ Dòngbīn; can’t recognize a good heart when it sees one.

Often a dog will threaten people on the strength of its master’s power. 狗仗人勢 (Gǒuzhàngrénshì) means to bully someone under the protection of a powerful superior.

Now, if a dog bothers you, but it has a powerful master, or if the dog’s master is your friend, you would think twice before hitting the dog. The following idiom teaches you to look at the bigger picture instead of reacting hastily in some situations.

打狗看主人.
Dǎ gǒu kàn zhǔrén.
Mind whose dog it is before you strike.

Like a cornered dog, a person who has run out of resources might do something desperate. 狗急跳牆 (gǒujítiàoqiáng) means that, in a dire situation, a dog could jump over a wall.

Literally 打落水狗 (dǎluòshuǐgǒu) is to beat a drowning dog. Figuratively it means to deal a blow to a person who has lost power or favor, or to completely crush a defeated enemy.

If you made an inexcusable blunder at your job, your boss might level a stream of abusive language at you. This is likened to a jet of dog blood sprayed onto your head, as in:

老板把我骂了个狗血噴頭.
Lǎobǎn bǎ wǒ mà le gè gǒuxuěpēntóu.
The boss gave me a piece of his mind.

People who love to advise others but only have inept or even bad advice to offer are referred to as 狗頭軍師 (gǒutóujūnshī). 军师 (jūnshī) is a military counsellor.

The following expressions involve the dog plus another animal.

狗咬耗子 (gǒu yǎo hàozi) translates to: “Dog bites rat.” It refers to people meddling in other people’s affairs, which are none of their business.

If someone, for whom you have little regard, utters crude language, offers useless advice, or writes a mediocre article, you might make this disparaging remark to a third party:

狗嘴里长不出象牙.
Gǒu zuǐ li zhǎng bù chū xiàngyá.
A dog’s mouth can’t grow ivory.
(What can a dog do but bark?)

挂羊头卖狗肉 (guà yáng tóu mài gǒu ròu) means to display a goat’s head but sell dog meat, in other words, to bait and switch.

狐群狗党 (húqúngǒudǎng) refers to a gang of scoundrels (compared to foxes and wild dogs). 群 (qún) is a group of people, a crowd or a heard of animals. 党 (dǎng) usually refers to a political party.

You might describe a cold-blooded or unscrupulous person as having a wolf’s heart and a dog’s lungs, as in 狼心狗肺 (lángxīngǒufèi).

偷鸡摸狗 (tōu jī mō gǒu) means to engage in petty dishonest activities, such as stealing or having extra-marital affairs. 偷 (tōu) is to steal, pilfer or to be on the sly. 摸 (mō) is to feel or touch.

In traditional Chinese families, people are of the opinion that a daughter who has been married off must stick with her husband regardless of what kind of person he is. Remember that in earlier times, marriages were arranged by the parents, and Chinese women did not have a choice of whom they married.

嫁雞隨雞,嫁狗隨狗.
Jià jī suí jī, jià gǒu suí gǒu.
If you married a chicken, follow the chicken,
and if you married a dog, follow the dog.

It is interesting to note that the original saying goes like this:

嫁乞随乞,嫁叟随叟.
Jià qǐ suí qǐ, jià sǒu suí sǒu.
If you married a beggar, follow the beggar,
and if you married an old man, follow the old man.

No matter which way the saying is phrased, it teaches the women to 认命 (rènmìng), i.e. to accept their fate and try to work out the differences to keep the marriage in harmony. I think that goes for men as well.

Yeah, check out Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes
to learn additional Chinese expressions, idioms and sayings.

情人节快乐!
Qíngrén Jié kuàilè!
Happy Valentine’s Day!

春节快乐!
Chūnjié kuàilè!
Happy Spring Festival!

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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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