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!

Chinese word radical – Hand

Hand Shadow

Hand Shadow


Come to think of it, our hands do a multitude of things for us, but most of us take them for granted. Without hands, it would be very difficult to even perform such basic tasks as putting food into one’s mouth and doing the dishes. That’s why the Chinese say, “双手万能 (huāngshǒu wànnéng)”.

The hand is called (shǒu). 双手 (huāngshǒu) means both hands. 万能 (wànnéng) means all-powerful or omnipotent.

Naturally, words like (zhǎng the palm) and (quán the fist, or boxing) take on the “hand” radical. So does the word (ná), which means to hold, to grasp or to take.

In everyday speech, we often speak of the palm as 手掌 (shǒuzhǎng). Similarly, we often refer to the fist as 拳头 (quántou). 拳击手 (quánjíshǒu) is a boxer. In this term, (shǒu hand) refers to a person who is doing a task or is good at doing a certain task, much like how the word “hand” is employed in the English term “farmhand”.

In your Chinese dictionary you will find many words containing the reduced “hand” radical. We’ve discussed a number of them in “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes“, and mentioned a couple last week Following are a few more for you to look at

(mō) is to stroke, to feel with one’s hands or to feel out.

他摸到一个小瘤子.
Tā mō dào yī gè xiǎo liúzi.
He felt a small tumor.

(fú) is to support someone with one’s hands. 扶手 (fúshou) is a handrail or an armrest.

(rēng) and (pāo) both mean to throw, to toss, to discard or to abandon.

他抛弃了财产, 离开家乡.
Tā pāoqì le cáichǎn, líkāi jiāxiāng.
He adandoned his property and left his hometown.

(sī) is to tear.

他撕下一张日历.
Tā sī xià yī zhāng rìlì.
He tore off a page from the daily calendar.

As a verb, (tuō) is to hold or support something with upturned hands. 委托 (wěituō) means to entrust someone with a task. 寄托 (jìtuō) means to entrust something or someone to the care of another person. 拜托 (bàituō) is to politely ask someone to do something in your favor.

拜托, 帮个忙.
Bàituō bāng gè máng.
Please, do me a favor.

托儿所 (tuōérsuǒ) is a child-care center.

(wā) means to dig or unearth. 挖苦 (wāku) means to speak sarcastically or ironically.

(kàng) is to resist or to defy. 抵抗 (dǐkàng) is to resist, and 抵抗力 (dǐkàng lì) refers to one’s ability to ward off diseases.

(chě) is to pull apart or to pull on someones clothing. Colloquially it refers to going off a point. For example, 胡扯 (húchě) means to talk nonsense.

(pá) is to rake up or to push loose things (like dry leaves) aside to reveal what’s underneath. Doesn’t the (bā eight) character on the right-hand side look like arms spread out while pushing things away from the center? A pickpocket is called a 扒手 (páshǒu). Here again, (shǒu hand) refers to the “doer”. An easy way to remember this word is to imagine eight hands picking all your interior and exterior bellow pockets, zippered pockets, hand-warmer pocket, etc. (This reminds me of a scene in Charlie Chaplin’s movie “The Kid“.)

吃里扒外 (chīlǐbāwài) describes the treacherous behavior of living on somebody but secretly working for the benefactor’s adversary, or 对手 (duìshǒu oponent). This is a rather serious accusation.

Homework: Find out what hand shadows are called in Chinese.

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