Are we “crossing the river in the same boat” or are we just “in the same boat”? My favourite Chinese idioms
16 Sep 2020
I enjoy the challenge of equating an English idiom with a Chinese one. So hitting the nail on the head in Chinese is “drawing blood on the first prick (of a needle)” (一针见血 yì zhēn jiàn xiě). “Killing the goose that lays the golden eggs” can be translated into “killing the hen to get the eggs” (杀鸡取卵 shā jī qǔ luǎn) or “draining the pond to get at the fish” (涸泽而渔 hé zé ér yú). They are vivid in their descriptions, and relatively simple, so easy to remember. They convey wisdom, witticisms and lessons. Being able to throw in such sayings casually into a conversation will impress your Chinese friends!
Song Dynasty poet and gastronomist Su Shi wrote a poem “Would that we could live a long life, and together share the moonlight a thousand miles away” (但愿人长久，千里共婵娟 dàn yuàn rén cháng jiǔ, qiān lǐ gòng chán juān). Today, this sentiment widely means that no matter how far we are, we see the same moon, hence we inhabit the same planet. Credit: DFAT
Here are some of my favourites:
The Chinese version of teaching your grandmother how to suck eggs is “showing off in front of Master Ban” (班门弄斧 bān mén nòng fǔ). It’s based on the story of an apprentice who shows off his newly acquired skills with an axe in the front door of master carpenter Lu Ban. In order words, the apprentice was making a fool of himself in front of an expert.
“No 300 taels of silver buried here” (此地无银三百两 cǐ dì wú yín sān bǎi liǎng) is based on a folk tale of a man who puts up a sign over the place where he had hidden some money. It represents a clumsy denial that results in self exposure, and expresses the same sentiment in English when someone protests too much. What’s even more amusing for me is the often neglected second part of the story – after the man hid the silver, his neighbour Wang’er stole it and then puts up another sign that says “your neighbour Wang’er didn’t steal it” (隔壁王二不曾偷 gé bì wáng èr bù céng tōu).
“The old man lost his mare, but it all turned out for the best” (塞翁失马，焉知非福 sài wēng shī mǎ, yān zhī fēi fú) is also based on a parable, and is the equivalent of the English idiom “a blessing in disguise”. The many versions of this story essentially evolves around an old frontiersman losing his horse, only to find it returning, accompanied by an even better horse.
“Yelang thinks highly of itself” (夜郎自大 yè láng zì dà) refers to the story of the King of Yelang (a small kingdom in southwest China during the Han dynasty) who thought that he was the most powerful king in the world. It now means parochial arrogance. Credit: DFAT
“Covering one’s ears while stealing a bell” (掩耳盗铃 yǎn ěr dào líng) is a particularly vivid idiom that means to deceive oneself. Perhaps the best English equivalent is “burying one’s head in the sand”.
Another vivid description, “drinking poison to quench thirst” (饮鸩止渴 yǐn zhèn zhǐ kě), is an analogy for using the wrong measures to remedy a problem, and actually making things worse. Perhaps “cutting off one’s nose to spite their face” conveys the same sentiment.
I also like “thinking of plums to quench thirst” (望梅止渴 wàng méi zhǐ kě), which means to console oneself with illusions. This saying has an ancient antecedent, as it comes from what Han Dynasty (2nd Century) warlord and poet Cao Cao’s rallying cry – and lie – to an exhausted army to get them motivated when a battle seems lost. A less sophisticated version of feeding false hopes is “drawing a cake to allay hunger” (画饼充饥 huà bǐng chōng jī).
“The mountains are high and the Emperor far away” (山高皇帝远 shān gāo huáng dì yuǎn）was a familiar refrain for far flung places in the Chinese empire where laws and decrees were not strictly enforced. Credit: DFAT
Expressions involving blood and gore isn’t uncommon, such as to “spit blood on someone” (血口喷人 xuè kǒu pēn rén), ie, to slander someone venomously, or “kill the chicken to warn the monkeys” (杀鸡儆猴 shā jī jǐng hóu) which means to punish an individual as an example to others. Another killing metaphor is to “kill the donkey the moment it leaves the millstone” (卸磨杀驴 xiè mò shā lǘ), ie, to get rid of someone as soon they have ceased to be useful.
The donkey doesn’t seem to have a good reputation. For example, “the donkey from Guizhou has exhausted its tricks” (黔驴技穷 qián lǘ jì qióng) means that someone has exhausted their meager abilities, and “when a lazy donkey is turning a grindstone, it takes a lot of time off for peeing and pooing” (懒驴上磨屎尿多 Lǎn lǘ shàng mò shǐ niào duō), in other words, a lazy person will find many excuses to avoid work.
Then there are sayings based on experience of war, such as “know yourself and know your enemy, and you’ll never be defeated” (知己知彼，百战不殆 zhī jǐ zhī bǐ, bǎi zhàn bú dài), which comes from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
“Wielding an axe in front of Master Ban” (班门弄斧 bān mén nòng fǔ) is a metaphor for showing off one’s meager skills in front of experts in their fields. Much like myself playing ping pong in front of my colleagues. Credit: DFAT
“Covet Shu Kingdom after getting Long Kingdom” (得陇望蜀 dé lǒng wàng shǔ) is another story of battle that describes the insatiable greed of a king that sets his sights on yet another kingdom (Shu Kingdom in modern day Sichuan province), after he successfully conquered Long Kingdom (present day Gansu).
“Raining on Mount Ba” (巴山夜雨 bā shān yè yǔ) refers to a Tang Dynasty poem by Li Shangyin describing the melancholy loneliness of sojourners in a strange land. The poet was probably in Chongqing’s Jinyun Mountain when he wrote it. Credit: DFAT
My former Mandarin teacher once patiently taught us a chapter each week from The Thirty-Six Stratagems, a series of proverbs relating to 36 battle scenarios in Chinese history and folklore, predominantly of the Warring States and Three Kingdoms periods. These scenarios are used to illustrate a series of stratagems used in politics, war, and civil interaction. One favourite is “pointing at the mulberry tree while cursing the locust tree” (指桑骂槐 zhǐ sāng mà huái), meaning to make oblique accusations using analogy and innuendo, so as to avoid direct criticism or confrontation.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are beautiful idioms derived from the teachings of ancient sages that convey civil behaviour and moral values. One that resonates deeply with me is “if there are three people walking together, at least one of them can teach me something” (三人行，必有我师 sān rén xíng, bì yǒu wǒ shī). It’s from the Analects of Confucius and means that you have something to learn from everyone.
I also like another Confucius saying about learning: “to learn without thinking is labour lost, to think without learning is dangerous” (学而不思则罔，死而不学则殆 xué ér bù sī zé wǎng, sǐ ér bù xué zé dài).
Having fun with Chinese idioms. Credit: DFAT
Probably the best known quote Confucius in English is “don’t do unto others what you don’t want done unto you” (己所不欲，勿施于人 jǐ suǒ bú yù, wù shī yú rén). Also known as the Golden Rule, it is the principle of treating others as you want to be treated. It is actually a universal concept with variations found in nearly all major religions and cultures.
In fact, each of the sayings I mentioned have their equivalents in the English and other languages. The human experience transcends all languages. But we express our experiences differently through the prism of our history, geography and culture. This is why these idioms are so fascinating.
A particularly apt idiom during these hard times is “crossing the river in the same boat” (同舟共济tóng zhōu gòng jì), almost exactly the same as our expression “we’re in the same boat together” about pulling together in times of trouble. Credit: DFAT
References: Pleco dictionary