Chinese idioms and folk wisdom

Ripe Indigo Rose Cherry Tomatoes

Beautiful Ripened Indigo Rose Cherry Tomatoes

This spring, out of curiosity, I planted an interesting variety of tomato named “Indigo Rose”. The fruits maintained a deep indigo color with a green bottom until they finally matured. That was when the green portion turned orange-red. Only after I began harvesting the ripened fruits did I realize how this cultivar got its beautiful name. Why, a cute orange rose revealed itself on the tomato when I removed the tiny stem. There is no way I would let this season slip by without sharing the beauty of these tomatoes with you.

Now, what does this picture have to do with the idioms we will be talking about today? Well, here’s an idiom that is arguably relevant:

情人眼中出西施.
Qíngrén yǎn zhōng chū Xīshī.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

情人 (qíngrén) are lovers. In the lover’s eyes, the object of love compares to 西施 (Xīshī), who was touted in Chinese literature as the most flawless beauty in China.

I am halfway through reading ” Don Quijote 1 & 2 Español – English: Complete and Unabridged (Spanish Edition) “. I only read the English portion as I don’t speak Spanish, but I think this bilingual book can be very helpful for Spanish-speaking students who are learning English, or for English-speaking students who are learning Spanish because each paragraph in Spanish is followed by the corresponding paragraph in English. The conversations between the characters in this book are filled with idioms and wisecracks, and it struck me how so much of the same folk wisdom sprang up independently within different cultures.

Some Chinese refer to Don Quixote as 唐吉诃德 (táng jí hē dé). In Don Quixote’s imagination, Dulcinea was the 西施 (Xīshī), even though he had never set eyes on her. Such was the power of “pure and chaste” admiration from afar.

Following are a few idioms and sayings selected from the above-mentioned book, accompanied by their Chinese equivalent.

“a heart of marble”

铁石心肠
Tiěshíxīncháng
heart of iron and stone

“The wheel of fortune turns faster than a mill-wheel.”

风水轮流转
fēngshuǐ lúnliu zhuàn
Every dog has his day.

轮流 (lúnliu) means to take turns, such as while playing a card game. Good fortune does not always stay with the same people. This means you might get your turn yet.

“One devil is like another.”

天下乌鸦一般黑
Tiānxiàwūyāyībānhēi
Evil people are bad all the world over.
(All ravens are black.)

“Let us not throw the rope after the bucket.”

无济于事 or 无补于事
Wújìyúshì or wúbǔyúshì
of no avail

济 (jì) means to be of help or to benefit.
补 (bǔ) means to mend, repair, supply, make up for, nourish, or help.

“to have companion in trouble gives some relief”

同病相怜
Tóngbìngxiānglián
Fellow sufferers commiserate with each other.

“If the blind lead the blind, both are in danger of falling into the pit.”

盲人骑瞎马
Mángrén qí xiā mǎ
A blind man riding on a blind horse (heading to disaster)

“As we have loaves, let’s not go looking for cakes.”

知足长乐
Zhīzú cháng lè
Be contented with your lot and you will stay happy.

Please note that 足 (zú) has several meanings: foot, leg, sufficient, enough, ample, satisfied. 手足 (shǒuzú hands and feet) refers to brothers.

“come for wool and go back shorn”
偷鸡不得失把米.
Tōu jī bùdé shī bǎ mǐ.
Failed in attempting to to steal the chicken and lost a handful of rice in the process.

“Love has no greater enemy than hunger and constant want.”

爱情不能当面包.
Àiqíng bùnéng dāng miànbāo.
Love cannot not quell hunger like bread.

“All comparisons are odious.”

人比人气死人.
Rénbǐrén, qìsǐrén.
Comparing yourself with others will only make you angry.

“Tell me what company thou keepest and I’ll tell thee what thou art.”

物以类聚.
Wùyǐlèijù.
Like attracts like. (Birds of a feather flock together.)

“He who’s prepared has his battle half fought.”

有备无患
Yǒubèiwúhuàn
Preparedness averts peril.

准备 (zhǔnbèi) means to prrpare, or preparation.

我们要预先做好准备.
wǒmén yào yùxiān zuò hǎo zhǔnbèi.
We should make preparation beforehand.

This is particularly true when you have a test to take, or when the electric power might go out.

Now, let’s watch a video clip of “The Impossible Dream” (不可能实现的梦想 Bùkěnéng shíxiàn de mèngxiǎng) How can one help falling in love with such a beautiful melody, such as marvelous voice and such a brilliant performance?

By the way, if you have little ones, they might enjoy the Chinese nursery rhyme for counting frogs.

Flattery in Chinese

By now you should know how to write (mǎ horses) with your eyes closed. Beware, though, that there are a few other characters that look somewhat similar. For example, (yǔ and) is a conjunctive that is used in much the same way as (hé and). (niǎo) are birds. (wū) means dark or black, and 乌鸦 (wūyā) are crows.

There is a popular story from Aesop’s Fables with the title “The Fox and the Crow”. In Chinese, it is called 狐狸和乌鸦 (Húli Hé Wūyā) or 狐狸与乌鸦 (Húli Yǔ Wūyā). In the story the crow lost a piece of meat that she had found after a long search, all because she fell for the fox’s flattery.

阿谀 (ēyú) and 奉承 (fèngcheng) both mean flattery. You can also use them as verbs. Informally, people use the expression 拍马屁 (pāimǎpì) to describe the action of flattering or fawning on someone. (pāi) is to pat, to clap or to bat. 屁股 (pìgu) is an informal word for buttocks. When talking with people outside your family, use the word 臀部 (túnbù buttocks) instead. 马屁 (mǎ pì) is short for 马屁股 (mǎ pìgu horse’s rump). So, patting the haunch of someone’s horse and praising the horse (no matter if the horse is worthy of the praise) is tantamount to flattering the owner. Although the term 拍马屁 (pāimǎpì) is used among friends, as a rule of thumb it’s best to avoid saying in public words that contain (pì intestinal gas). This shouldn’t be difficult to remember as it sounds exactly the same as the English word pee.

他升得快是因为他懂得怎么拍马屁.
Tā shēng de kuà shì yīnwei tā dǒngde zěnme pāimǎpì.
He gets promotions because he knows how to flatter (the boss.)

At this link is “The Fox and the Crow” retold in Chinese. The narrative is delivered at an easy pace. You should be able to follow it with the help of the following word list.

山坡 (shānpō) means hillside.
树枝 (shùzhī) are branches of a tree.
(wō) is a nest, a pit for shelter, or a brood or litter of animals.
并且 (bìngqiě) means moreover or furthermore.
(fū) is to hatch or incubate.
(dòng) is a hole or a cavity.
好不容易 (hǎo bù róngyì) means with much effort.
找到 (zhǎodào) is to have found something.
(ròu) means meat, flesh, or pulp of fruits.
(diāo) is to hold and carry in the mouth.
足够 (zúgòu) means sufficient.
这时候 (zhè shíhòu) means at this moment or at this time.
肚子饿 (dùzi è) is to be hungry.
抬头 (táitóu) is to raise one’s heas and look up.
(xiāng) means fragrant or tasty.
(chán) means gluttonous.
流口水 (liú kǒushuǐ) is to salivate.
鬼主意 (guǐzhǔyì) is a wicked idea or scheme.
邻居 (línjū) are neighbors.
尊贵 (zūnguì) means honorable or respected.
作声 (zuò shēng) is to make a sound or utter words.
(pàng) means chubby.
仍然 (réngrán) is an adverb that means “still”.
羽毛 (yǔmáo) are feathers.
可怜的 (kělián) means pitiable.
麻雀 (máquè) is a sparrow.
(bǐ) is to compare.
(chā) means difference or being inferior.
再说 (zàishuō) here means “What’s more …”.
嗓子 (sǎngzi) refers to the voice box (larynx).
唱歌 (chànggē) is to sing.
欣赏 (xīnshǎng) means to enjoy or appreciate.
得意 (déyì) means to be proud of oneself.
(yǎng) means itchy or itching.
忍不住 (rěnbuzhù) means unable to hold back, or cannot help but do something.
掉到地上 (diào dào dì shàng) is for something to fall onto the ground.

Learn how to use Chinese words to best another

We humans are competitive by nature. Why, that’s part of our natural survival instinct. What a wonderful world it would be if we could just let all our aggression and physical prowess catapult us to a winning position on the sports arena rather than harm other human beings on the battlefield.

比较 (bǐjiào) means to compare or to compete. It is also used as an adverb that means “rather” or “comparatively”. (bǐ) is a formal word that has the same meaning as 比较 (bǐjiào), plus a few additional meanings, such as “to gesture”, “to be in the proximity of”, and “a ratio”. When announcing a ball game score of, for instance, “5 to 3”, you would say: 5 比 3 (wǔ bǐ sān).

One way to form the comparative of a Chinese adjective is to precede it with 比较 (bǐjiào). For example,

他好像比较友善.
Tā hǎoxiàng bǐjiào yǒushàn.
He seems to be more amicable.

他比我高.
Tā bǐ wŏ gāo.
He is taller than I.

更加 (gèngjiā) means “even more”. It is often abbreviated as (gèng).

她比你更有钱.
Tā bǐ nǐ gèng yǒuqián.
She is even wealthier than you.

With comparison and competition comes frustration. A Chinese saying goes like this:

人比人, 气死人.
Rén bǐ rén, qì sǐ rén.
Trying to measure up to others is totally maddening.

A healthier attitude is expressed in the following idiom:

比上不足, 比下有餘.
Bǐshàngbùzú, bǐxiàyǒuyú.
This may fall short of the best, but it’s still better than the worst.

The superlative is usually formed by preceding the adjective with (zuì).

蛙式最容易学.
Wā shì zuì róngyì xué.
Frog style is the easiest to learn.

Probably everyone has heard the following lines at some point:

Good, better, best, never go to rest
’till good gets better, and better, best.

It would be a mouthful to try and translate this adage into Chinese verbatim. No worries. This philosophy has already been condensed into a four-character idiom in Chinese:

精益求精.
Jīngyìqiújīng.
Even when you have achieved excellence, still keep improving.

Click on this link to see a video featuring “Anything You Can Do”, a song composed by Irving Berlin for the Broadway musical “Annie Get Your Gun”. See if you can sing the following Chinese lines to the tune of this fun song:

无论你会什么,
Wúlùn nĭ huì shénme,
No matter what you can do,

我比你更会.
Wŏ bǐ nĭ gèng huì.
I can do even better than you.

无论我做什么,
Wúlùn wŏ zuò shénme,
No matter what I do,

事半功倍.
Shìbàngōngbèi.
It’s a cinch and doubly good.
(Half the effort brings twice the effect.)

你不会.
Nǐ bùhuì.
No, you can’t.

我就会!
Wŏ jiù huì!
I sure can.

你不会.
Nǐ bùhuì.
No, you can’t.

我就会!
Wŏ jiù huì!
I sure can.

你不会.
Nǐ bùhuì.
No, you can’t.

我最会!
Wŏ zuì huì!
I’m the best!

我最会!
Wŏ zuì huì!
I’m the best!

Now, please calm down and review the usage of (huì to be able to) and other commonly used auxiliary verbs covered in Chapter 16 of “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes”.

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