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Mandarin proverbs

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All languages have their own common sayings and idioms, some of which make sense from the words used, and some of which don’t. Usually, there is a story behind how it is that certain words put together have come to have a specific meaning. While I thought English was a language quite reliant on the use of idioms, they are just as common in Mandarin Chinese, if not more so, especially because there are so many that are derived from classical Chinese stories, i.e. those written by Confucius and Mencius. These usually intend to get a moral across. Most standard Chinese proverbs consist of four characters.

成语, Cheng yu = Chinese set expression, often made up of 4characters, often alluding to a story or historical quotation

The following is a list of some that I either find amusing, interesting  or ones that are just fresh in my mind, because I’ve come across them recently. Some of them aren’t proverbs, but random bits of Chinese that I’m putting on the list anyway.

In no particular order at all, apart from the order in which I typed them out, here goes, because… it’s cool to know things in different languages…. (Hey, each to their own!)

  1. 鸡毛蒜皮 – ji mao suan pi
    Literal: chicken feather, garlic skin – alluding to the sorts of things that are ‘kitchen trash’
    Meaning: Trifling matters, trivialities
  2. 生老病死 – sheng lao bing si
    This one refers to the ‘fate of humankind’ (i.e. mortality), as it literally just describes the life cycle. And by literally, I mean that the words translate literally to “birth, old, sickness, death”. No beating around the bush here.
  3. 自相矛盾 – zi xiang mao dun
    I wonder what guesses people would make for this one if they only knew the literal meaning of the words: “self-“, “spear” and “shield”. There is a short story to this one, which describes a man in ancient times, who used to sell spears, and – you guessed it – shields. Smart salesman that he was, he needed some marketing slogans, right? Well, according to him, his spears were so sharp that there was nothing they couldn’t penetrate. Wow, they definitely sound as spear-like as they come; if I were buying a spear, these sound like a good choice. But that’s not all! What about the shields, sir? “My shields are so strong that nothing can penetrate them!” Hurray! Wait… about that spear, then…
    Meaning: Self-contradictory
    It all makes sense now, hm?
  4. 说曹操曹操就到 – shuo CaoCao CaoCao jiu dao
    Mostly I just like this one because of how it sounds. It’s quite difficult to say at speed.
    Literal: Speak of Cao Cao and Cao Cao arrives (Cao Cao is someone’s name)
    Meaning: Speak of the devil (and he will appear)
  5. 炒鱿鱼 – chao youyu
    I have no idea about the backstory to this.
    Literal: To stir-fry squid
    Meaning: To fire someone, to sack someone
  6. 青天大老爷 – qing tian da lao ye
    I like this one because it’s kinda cute 🙂
    Literal: Grandpa in the clear sky
    Meaning: God
    Isn’t that a cute image?
  7. 刀子嘴把豆腐心
    Literal: knife mouth, tofu heart. = Your tongue is sharp, but your heart is full of tofu.
    This would be the equivalent of “a sharp tongue, but a soft heart”. I think it’s funny how so typically Chinese it is, using tofu.
  8. 马马虎虎 – ma ma hu hu
    Literal: horse horse tiger tiger.
    I would have really liked to see people’s thoughts on this one, but the temptation of Google would have made this all too easy. It’s also more well known (I think) than the others, in the form of a typical “Hey, guess how you say ____ in Chinese??” type of question.
    Meaning: Okay. As in, ‘I thought that restaurant/movie/book was okay’. (And not as in, ‘Okay, I’ll bring the book to show you tomorrow’)
    I don’t know how this came about at all, but I’m glad it exists – it is also a fun-sounding Chinese phrase. Admittedly, I don’t think I have ever heard it used by a Chinese person, it’s usually heard among foreigners.
  9. 人山人海 – ren shan ren hai
    Literal: people mountain people sea
    Meaning: A vast crowd, crowds of people, or – to stay closer to the literal meaning – a sea of people.
    This one is applicable to every single situation in China, and I like how accurately the image of the idiom describes the reality.
  10. 东西 – dongxi
    Not a proverb or saying in any way, but just a VERY common word that is so normal now that I almost forgot how strange it actually is.
    Literal: East West
    Meaning: Things, as in ‘we talked about lots of things’, ‘that shop sells lots of stuff’.
    How did the two words East and West come to mean ‘things’?

Do you know any interesting proverbs, idioms and/or other traditional sayings in other languages? I’d like to know! For example, in Gujarati, one way of saying someone is really annoying you or bothering you would translate literally into English as so-and-so is drinking my blood. Maybe the city of Gujarat used to be inhabited by vampires, who knows?


About Ibtehaal

I graduated with a degree in Chinese and Economics, which involved spending a year studying Chinese in Beijing. This turned out to be the hardest but most rewarding thing I think I have ever done. I've now returned to China for another year, to study in Shanghai and figure out my next steps.

3 responses »

  1. Maybe your next ‘year abroad’ should be Gujrati. It will certainly add spice to your life 😉

  2. This was a really interesting read 🙂 Language works in mysterious ways! Number 6 was my favourite (yup I am making you look back 😛


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