Some Chinese expressions involving the moon

上弦月 shàngxián yuè First-quarter Moon

上弦月 (shàngxián yuè) First-quarter Moon

It is a Chinese tradition for family to gather together and enjoy the harvest of the year when the moon is at its fullest in the middle of autumn. After a scrumptious feast, it is customary for the party to move outdoors to observe the bright moon, chat, drink some tea and eat 月饼 (yuèbǐng moon cakes).

The moon is commonly referred to as 月亮 (yuèliang). In astronomical science, it is called 月球 (yuèqiú). In literature, one might speak of 月宫 (yuègōng), the palace on the moon where the moon fairly lives. In a moon-lit night, or 月夜 (yuèyè), you will likely see a half-moon shape, 半月形 (bànyuèxíng), or a crescent moon, 月牙 (yuèyá). A lunar eclipse is called 月蚀 (yuèshí).

The word (yuè) also represents the time period of one month. 正月 (zhēngyuè) is the first month of the lunar year. The Moon Festival takes place on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar year, i.e. 八月十五 (bāyuè shíwǔ).

岁月 (suìyuè) means years. 经年累月 (jīngniánlěiyuè) means year in year out.

他经年累月努力学习, 终于学会了中文.
Tā jīngniánlěiyuè nǔlì xuéxí, zhōngyú xuéhuì le zhōngwén.
After years of endeavoring in the study, he finally mastered the Chinese language.

蜜月 (mìyuè) is a honeymoon.

他们要去哪儿度蜜月?
Tāmen yào qù nǎr dù mìyuè?
Where are they going for their honeymoon?

The word 满月 (mǎnyuè) can refer to a full moon, or it can refer to a baby’s completion of its first month of life, which calls for a joyous celebration. After giving birth to a baby, a woman in the traditional Chinese society would be confined at home for the entire first month and eat nutritious foods and drink herbal soups so as to recuperate quickly and produce ample milk for the newborn. This is called 坐月子 (zuòyuèzi).

When you see (yuè) in front of another word, it often refers to a monthly occurrence. Following are a few examples:

月历 (yuèlì) is a montly calendar.
月刊 (yuèkān) is a monthly magazine.
月票 (yuèpiào) is a monthly ticket.
月息 (yuéxī) is the monthly interest.
月薪 (yuèxīn) is the monthly salary.

Have you ever heard of 月下老人 (yuèxiàlǎorén)? An ancient Chinese story goes like this: One night, a traveling young man happened on an old man who was reading a book under the moonlight. Out of curiosity the young man ask the old what the book was about. The old man replied, “This is the book of marriages. See that woman who is peddling vegetables over there? Her daughter is only three now. In fourteen years, that girl will become your wife.” The young man did not take to the homeliness of that little girl. He paid a local to stab her to death. Fourteen years later, the young man got married. As was the custom at that time, one would see his bride for the first time on the wedding night. When the young man lifted the veil that covered the face of his bride, he saw a scar on her eyebrow. It turned out that girl was the same one he had previously attempted to get rid of. 月下老人 (yuèxiàlǎorén), the old man under the moon, is believed to be the god who unites persons in marriage. Consequently this term is often used to refer to a matchmaker. Chapter 10 of “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes” discusses the song “Lift Your Veil”, which you can learn to sing by following the demo in the associated audio file.

累积 (lěijī) means to accumulate. 日积月累 (rìjīyuèlěi) means accumulated over a long period of time.

(xīn) means new. (yì) is the classical Chinese word for being different. Therefore 日新月异 (rìxīnyuèyì) means changing with each passing day (and month).

The phrase 风花雪月 (fēnghuāxuěyuè) contains the Chinese words for wind, flowers, snow and moon, which was the subject matter of certain types of feudal literature. Nowadays this idiom refers to shallow sentimental writing that is devoid of content. It is also used to describe decadence and indulgence in wine and women.

海底捞月 (hǎidǐlāoyuè) means to attempt to scoop up the moon from the bottom of the sea, i.e. striving in vain for the impossible or the illusory.

这像是海底捞月.
Zhè xiàng shì hǎidǐlāoyuè.
This is a hopeless illusion.

When people gather for the Moon Festival, some may play the game of mahjong, which involves completing a winning hand of tiles by forming sets of three tiles (melds). You could form a meld using a tile that you picked up or by using a tile discarded by another player. In the rare instance where no one has won when the tiles almost run out and you pick up the last available tile to complete a winning hand, you are said to have accomplished 海底捞月 (hǎidǐlāoyuè).

中秋节快乐!
Zhōngqiūjié kuàilè!
Happy Moon Festival!

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Sing Chinese Song of Tai-Hu Boat

Now that you know how to say (xíng), let’s sing a well-known Chinese song in which this word is prominently featured.

太湖船 (Tàihú Chuán Boat on Lake Tai) is a song about a large lake located near Shanghai, China. Some information about the lake is provided by Wikipedia.

The following link will take you to a video featuring this song.

When singing or listening to the short and sweet verses of this song, picture yourself sitting leisurely in a small boat gliding along on Lake Tai. When singing or listening to the short and sweet verses of this song, picture yourself sitting leisurely in a small boat gliding along on Lake Tai. I searched through Henry Li’s Chinese painting videos on YouTube and came upon one at this link that is related to a boat. About 12 minutes and 8 seconds into the demonstration, the fishing boat is finally introduced. In my opinion, it is this tiny speck that breathes life onto the landscape painting.

山青水明幽静静.
Shān qīng shuǐ míng yōu jìng jìng.
In the tranquility by the green mountains and the clear water,

湖心飘来风一阵呀.
Hú xīn piāo lái fēng yīzhèn ya.
a breeze wafts over from the center of the lake.

行呀行呀, 进呀进.
Xíng ya xíng ya, jìn ya jìn.
Going, going; moving on.

黄昏时候人行少.
Huánghūn shíhòu rén xíng shǎo.
In the twilight few people are around.

半空月影水面摇呀.
Bàn kòng yuè yǐng shuǐmiàn yáo ya.
The image of the half-risen moon shimmers on the surface of the water.

行呀行呀, 进呀进.
Xíng ya xíng ya, jìn ya jìn.
Going, going; moving on.

(shān) is a mountain of a hill. (qīng) can mean green or blue. It represents young crops and young people.

(shuǐ) is water or bodies of water. (míng) features both a sun and a moon. It represents brightness and clarity.

(jìng) means quiet, still or calm. 安靜 (ānjìng) means quiet and peaceful. 幽靜 (yōujìng) means quiet and secluded. 平静 (píngjìng) means calm and quiet. These words can also serve as nouns.

On the second line, some people sing 湖上 (hú shàng on the lake) instead of 湖心 (hú xīn center of the lake).

We’ve encountered 飘来 (piāo lái wafting towards you) in the Laura Lee song we sang a couple weeks ago.

Normally you would say 一阵风 (yīzhèn fēng) for a waft of wind or a gust of wind. Sometimes the order is reversed to create a special effect.

黄昏 (huánghūn) is dusk or twilight.

In the third tone, (shǎo) means few or little.

半空 (bàn kòng) means half way in the sky, or mid-air.

(yǐng) is a shadow or a reflection. 月影 (yuè yǐng) is the image of the moon.

Now here is a Chinese saying that involves a boat moving not so smoothly but against the currents:

学如逆水行舟, 不进则退.
Xué rú nìshnì shuǐ xíngzhōu, bùjìnzétuì.
Studying is like rowing a boat upstream – If you don’t forge ahead, you will drop back.

Indeed, learning Chinese could feel like a Sisyphean task. You will need to keep up the effort so as not to regress.

Chinese idioms and expressions involving the horse

Happy New Year

Happy New Year

‘Tis the Year of the Horse. Horses have served people in transportation, farming, wars, horse races as well as leisurely horseback riding. No wonder there are so many Chinese words, expressions and idioms containing the character for horse, or (mǎ). We’ll look at a few examples today.

走马看花 (zǒumǎkànhuā) means glancing at the flowers while riding on horseback. You might use this expression to describe your short stay at a place, which did not afford you a good understanding of its people and culture. Or, you could use it while talking about the limited or superficial understanding you have gained on a subject through cursory observation or a brief study.

马不停蹄 (mǎbùtíngtí) means doing something without stopping. (tíng) means to stop. (tí) is a horse’s hoof.

他日夜赶工, 马不停蹄.
Tā rìyè gǎn gōng, mǎbùtíngtí.
He worked day and night, not stopping for a moment.

(biān) is a whip. As a verb, it means to whip. 快马加鞭 (kuàimǎjiābiān) means spurring a horse that’s already going very fast in order to speed up even more. In other words, going at top speed.

老马识途 (lǎomǎshítú) is an expression that gives due credit to an old horse that knows the way, or to an old hand who can lend his experience and offer guidance.

On the other hand, 盲人瞎马 (mángrénxiāmǎ) or 盲人骑瞎马 (mángrén qí xiāmǎ) describes the worrisome situation of a vision-impaired person riding a blind horse, about to plunge into disaster.

这像是盲人骑瞎马.
Zhè xiàng shì mángrén qí xiāmǎ.
This is like a blind leading a blind.

(liǎn) is the face, and (cháng) means long. It is obvious that the horse has an elongated face. However, the horse itself may not be aware of it. The expression 马不知脸长 (mǎ bùzhī liǎn cháng) is commonly used to criticize a person who is unable to see his or her own faults or shortcomings. It is usually uttered during a gossip behind the back of the target.

死马当作活马医 (sǐmǎdàngzuòhuómǎyī) is another interesting expression. This sentence translates to: “Try to heal a dead horse as if it were still alive.” It implies not giving up but trying everything possible to remedy a hopeless situation.

怎么办呢? 只好死马当作活马医了.
Zěnme bàn ne? Zhǐhǎo sǐmǎdàngzuòhuómǎyī le.
What to do? We can only try our best and see how it goes.

(fēng) is the wind. (niú) is a cow. Neither has anything to do with a horse. Therefore, 风马牛不相及 (fēngmǎniúbùxiāngjí) means totally irrelevant.

牛头不对马嘴 (niútóubùduìmǎzuǐ) means the horse’s jaws don’t fit into a cow’s head. This expression describes how the reply one gets does not answer the question one asked. The more formal expression is 答非所问 (dá fēi suǒ wèn).

单枪匹马 (dānqiāngpǐmǎ) means one spear and one horse, i.e. single-handed. Think of Gary Cooper in “High Noon”.

招兵买马 (zhāobīngmǎimǎ) is to recruit solders and purchase horses, i.e. to build an army or to recruit followers. Again, think of Gary Cooper in “High Noon”.

As the “ma” syllable occurs frequently in the English language, the (mǎ) character is used in the transliteration of quite a few English words. For example, 马达 (mǎdá) is a motor, 马拉松 (mǎlāsōng) is marathon, 马赛克 (mǎsàikè) means mosaic, and 巴哈马 (Bāhāmǎ) is the transliteration for the Bahamas. Also, 马来西亚 (Malaysia) is Malaysia, and 马来半岛 (Mǎlāibàndǎo) is the Malay Peninsula.

How do you think President Obama’s name should be translated into Chinese? 奥巴马 (Aòbāmǎ) or 欧巴马 (Oūbāmǎ)? Read this article in the Washington Post to see which side you are on.

马到成功 (mǎdàochénggōng) means to win success upon arrival. The horse is involved in this expression because it represents the troops in ancient times. What could be better than winning the battle as soon as you confront the enemy?

祝你马到成功!
Zhù nǐ mǎdàochénggōng!
May you achieve instant success!

By the way, some of you may wonder why a pineapple is featured in the above photo. The pineapple is called “wěng lái” in the Taiwanese dialect. This happens to be the same as how you’d pronounce 旺来 (wàng lái) in Taiwanese. (wàng) means prosperity and (lái) means to come. Therefore, in Taiwan, the pineapple symbolizes the advent of prosperity.

Also, if you look closer at the card in the picture, at the bottom there is something beside the vase. It is actually an elongated piece for scratching one’s back. The everyday version is usually made of wood or plastic. For the emperor or the very rich, it may be made from jade or gold. As scratching one’s back makes one feel good, this s-shaped stick is nicknamed 如意 (rúyì as one wishes) and has become a symbol of good luck.

The Four Winds

If you are familiar with a Chinese game called mahjong, you will know that in the boxful of at least 136 tiles there are 4 tiles marked with (dōng east), four tiles marked with (nán south), four tiles marked with 西 (xī west) and four tiles marked with (běi north). These tiles actually represent the four winds: the east wind, the south wind, the west wind and the north wind.

The wind, (fēng) is an air movement that manifests itself as a natural force or flow of energy. We can create an artificial wind by using a hand-held fan, 扇子 (shànzi), or an electric fan, 风扇 (fēngshàn).

Following are a couple ways to describe a wind:

风轻轻地吹.
Fēn qīngqīng de chuī.
The wind is gently blowing.

刮大风了.
Guā dàfēng le.
A gale has started to blow.

Well, when it’s blowing outside, you might want to put on a 风衣 (fēngyī a dust-coat) to help ward off the wind.

风光 (fēngguāng) and 风景 (fēngjǐng) both refer to scenery and landscape.

这里风光很好.
Zhelǐ fēngguāng hěnhào.
The scenery here is very nice.

风度 (fēngdù) refers to one’s deportment or demeanor, while 作风 (zuòfēng) refers to one’s style of doing things.

In the word, 中风(zhòngfēng), (zhòng) takes on the fourth tone, and means “to hit on target” or “to be hit by”. When a person has a stroke (apoplexy), the Chinese say that he or she has been hit by the (evil) wind. Of course, in the scientific sense, 中风(zhòngfēng) has nothing to do with the wind at all.

Something floating in air is said to (piāo). For example,

白云飘在空中.
Bái yún piāo zài kōngzhōng.
White clouds are floating in the sky.

Although the east wind is sometimes depicted as an evil force in western literature, the Chinese believe it brings favorable conditions and good luck. So, if someone mentions, “只欠东风 (zhī qiàn dōng fēng only lacking the east wind)”, it means that everything is ready but needs to wait for the right moment or a favorable condition.

南风 (nánfēng) are winds that come from the south, which usually invokes an image of a sunny place in the summer, where friendly and happy people sing and dance under the palm trees.

Let’s listen to the third song at this link, which is called “西风的话 (Xīfēng de Huà) Words of the West Wind”, with music composed by 黃自 (Huáng Zì) and lyrics written by 廖輔叔 (Liào Fǔshū). Normally this song is sung at a slow, deliberate tempo. Nevertheless, the exuberance of these cute kids is always a joy to watch. In the song there is no mention of the time of the year. Can you guess from the context what season it is describing?

Last year when I came back,
You had just donned your new gown.
Today I come to see you,
How stout and tall you have grown!
Do you perhaps remember,
The lotus in the pond will turn to pods?
Blooms will be scarce, but we won’t be without colors –
For I shall tint the leaves with red.

Most of the words in the Chinese lyrics should look familiar to you. I’ll just comment on a few new terms. As a reminder, we talked about flowers and trees in my 3/20/11 post, and I mentioned a few colors in my 7/6/11 post.

(gāng) as an adjective means firm and strong. As an adverb, it means “barely”, “just” or “a short while a go”. For example:

他刚回来.
Tā gāng huílái.
He has just come back.

穿 (chuān) is to put on or wear clothing.

棉袍 (mián páo) is a cotton-padded quilted jacket

记得 (jìde) is to remember.

我记得你不吃辣的(东西).
Wǒ jìde nǐ bù chī là de (dōngxi).
I rember you don’t eat spicy foods (things).

(chí) is a pond. 池里 (chí li) means in the pond.

莲蓬 (liánpeng) is the seepod of the lotus plant.

(chóu) is short for 忧愁 (yōuchóu sad, be worried).

(rǎn) means to dye.

One of the usages of the adverb, (dōu), is to help emphasize that an action is performed by all of the subjects, or that an action is applied to all of the objects. In the following line, it indicates that the action of tinting is applied to all the leaves.

我把树叶都染红.
Wǒ bǎ shùyè dōu rǎn hóng.
I will color all the leaves red.

北风 (běifēng) are the winds that come down from the north. It seems there is a world-wide consensus that the north wind signifies cold, harsh weather. This wind is featured in the well-known Aesop’s Fable, “The North Wind and the Sun”. I think you’ll agree that it’s often better to employ diplomacy and persuation to convince people rather than use brute force and coercion to impose compliance.

At this link there is a pattern for a four-leaf-clover origami that you could make to help you or your child learn the Chinese words for the four directions as well as a number of other terms.

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