Archive for Proverbs

Sayings about cats and dogs in Japan

One of the most famous novels in Japanese literature is titled Wagahai wa Neko de Aru 吾輩は猫である (I Am a Cat; see in "Selected readings" below), which I have always taken as a sign of the degree to which Japanese, at least some Japanese, can identify with catness.  The same holds true for Japanese painted scrolls depicting people as cats (or cats as people).

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Ask Language Log: "He who plays with fire will get burned"

From Claudia Rosett:

I have a question about a phrase that China’s foreign ministry attributed to Xi in his call with Biden last week:

In English:  “Those who play with fire will perish by it.”

That phrase, in English translation, is exactly the same as threats Chinese officials issued against Hong Kong during the protests in 2019.

I am wondering if this is a standard threat in Chinese — much as it is a proverb in the West — or something that for effect in English they have swiped from us.

I’m not sure it’s of any great importance which way that goes, but in the cataloguing of PRC threats made in English, it stands out as memorable, a phrase the press latches onto. Perhaps because it is so familiar to us.

If you have any insights on this, I’d be grateful.

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Learning Chinese is easy — not

From the Facebook page of a friend:

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"Good Wine Need No Bush"

Received from Nathan Hopson:

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How to pronounce the surname "Mair" and other Doggie talk

People pronounce my surname all sorts of different ways — Myer, Mare, Meer, Mire, as in Golda Meir, etc., etc., with the number of syllables (one or two), accent, and vowel quality varying almost limitlessly  — but I've never once in my life "corrected" anyone, because I think they're all legitimate.  Think of the different ways to pronounce Sun Yat-sen's and Chiang Kai-shek's names, and how to pronounce 陈 (Chen, Chin, Chan, Tan).

After all, people in the same family may pronounce their own surname differently, e.g., Boucher ("Butcher, Boochez"), Naquin ("Na-can, Næ-kwin"), and the famous Penn Sinologist Derk Bodde (1909-2003) introduced himself as "Derek Bod", whereas most other people called him "Durk Bod-de").

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Year of the tiger in Japan

The tiger is the coming year's representative in the sexagenary cycle, the 60-term cycle of twelve zodiacal animals combined with five elements / phases in the traditional Chinese calendar; currently used in Japan for years, historically also for days; widely applied in Chinese astrology. (source, see also here, here, here, and here)

In Sinitic languages, the 60-year cycle is known as gānzhī 干支 (Sino-Japanese [on'yomi] pronunciation kanshi), i.e., "(calendrical) heavenly / celestial stems and earthly / terrestrial branches".  In Japanese [kun'yomi], 干支 may also be read as "eto", but that is usually written in kana as えと.

I've often wondered about the etymology of the "eto" pronunciation of 干支.  Here is what Wiktionary tells us:

The combination of (え, e; elder brother) and (と, to; younger brother); the original meaning is 兄弟 (brother). Derived from this term, the elder is adopted as "positive" and "heavenly stems", the younger is adopted as "negative" and "earthly branches".

Not sure I can follow all of that, but at least it is something.

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Vulgar village vernacular

This Chinese article is about a man who has made a living by painting slogans and ads on village walls for thirty years. Some of the slogans are rather bizarre, as may be seen by looking at the many photographs in the article.

The article says it is such a well-paying job that the man was able to buy 6 apartments in his hometown with his earnings. Painting on walls is one of the major ways to advertise or propagate goods and ideas in the countryside.

There are many examples of such signs in the article, but I couldn't understand all of them upon first glance, so I wondered if the country folk would be able to read the signs. I asked a number of my graduate students from China, and they all said, yes, the country folk not only would be able to read them, but would enjoy them and would be motivated to buy the products and services promoted by the signs.

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"Take off your pants and fart"

British actress "Rosamund Pike’s RUDE Mandarin lessons!" | The Graham Norton Show – BBC

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Ultracrepidarian

I came upon this curious word by chance in the following article:

"Know your English — What is the meaning of ‘ultracrepidarian’?", by S. Upendran, in The Hindu (9/2/13; updated 6/2/16)

First, let us deal with the pronunciation of the word. The first two syllables are pronounced like the word ‘ultra’, and the following ‘crep’ rhymes with ‘prep’ and ‘rep’. The ‘i’ is like the ‘i’ in ‘bit’, ‘hit’, and ‘sit’, and the ‘dar’ is pronounced like the word ‘dare’. The word is pronounced ‘ul-tra-krep-i-DARE-ien’ with the stress on the fifth syllable. An ultracrepidarian is someone who is in the habit of giving advice on matters he himself knows nothing about — like a politician! This Latin word literally means ‘beyond the shoe’.

*My ultracrepidarian uncle will be spending two weeks with us.

The story goes that when the Greek painter Apellis displayed his beautiful painting of Alexander the Great, a shoemaker pointed out that the sandals in the painting did not have the required number of loops. The artist thanked him, and immediately set about making the required changes. Once they had been carried out, the emboldened shoemaker began to comment on other aspects of the painting — the shape of Alexander's legs, his robes, etc.

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Pointing at a deer and calling it a horse

The following graphics reflect the disgust of Hong Kong protesters over the police rewriting of the notorious attack on subway passengers by CCP orchestrated goons at the Yuen Long MTR station on July 21, 2019 (hence "721").

All of the illustrations have as their theme the set phrase (chéngyǔ 成語, often misleadingly referred to as "idioms") zhǐlùwéimǎ 指鹿為馬 ("point at a deer as a horse", i.e., "point at a deer and call it a horse"), i.e., "deliberate misrepresentation for ulterior purposes".

The Records of the Grand Historian records that [the powerful eunuch] Zhao Gao [d. 207 BC], in an attempt to control the Qin [221-206 BC] government, devised a loyalty test for court officials using a deer and horse:

Zhao Gao was contemplating treason but was afraid the other officials would not heed his commands, so he decided to test them first. He brought a deer and presented it to the Second Emperor but called it a horse. The Second Emperor laughed and said, "Is the chancellor perhaps mistaken, calling a deer a horse?" Then the emperor questioned those around him. Some remained silent, while some, hoping to ingratiate themselves with Zhao Gao, said it was a horse, and others said it was a deer. Zhao Gao secretly arranged for all those who said it was a deer to be brought before the law and had them executed instantly. Thereafter the officials were all terrified of Zhao Gao. Zhao Gao gained military power as a result of that. (tr. Watson 1993:70)

(Source)

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Handfoot

From Lisa Nichols:

I noticed on Twitter some HK protest folks last night talking about being a "handfoot", seemingly a newly coined (punned?) term playing with Chinese characters.  I can't seem to figure out much about it, though, but, in trying, came across your posts on Hong Kong protest language [see "Selected readings" below] and thought you might know, or be able to figure it out easily, or at least be interested.

Can you tell me more about it?  Some Cantonese play?  I take it the meaning is a person on the streets, on the frontlines, but maybe something more than that.

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Tilting vessel

Earlier this year, we had a post about a fascinating new Wikipedia article on "Goblet word" (5/30/20).  That post was about a vessel that served as an analogy for a rhetorical device called zhīyán 卮言 ("goblet word").  Now we have another magisterial Wikipedia article by an anonymous master of Chinese esoterica.  It's about another name for a similar type of vessel called qīqì 欹器, "tilting vessel".

The qīqì (欹器, "tilting vessel" or "tipping vessel") was an ancient Chinese ceremonial utensil that automatically overturned and spilled its contents once it reached capacity, thus symbolizing moderation and caution. Both Confucian and Daoist Chinese classics include a famous anecdote about the first time Confucius saw a tilting vessel. In the Confucian tradition (e.g., Xunzi) it was also named yòuzuò zhī qì (宥座之器, "vessel on the right of one's seat"), with three positions, the vessel tilts to one side when empty, stands upright when filled halfway, and overturns when filled to the brim—illustrating the philosophical value of the golden mean. In the Daoist tradition, the tilting vessel was named yòuzhī (宥卮, "urging goblet" or "warning goblet"), with two positions, staying upright when empty and overturning when full—illustrating the metaphysical value of emptiness, and later associated with the Zhuangzian zhīyán (卮言, "goblet words") rhetorical device.

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"The old man at the pass loses his horse"

For many years, Melinda Takeuchi, professor of Japanese art history at Stanford, regularly competed with horse and carriage in combined driving events.  Here's an example of what the sport looks like.

Not long ago, her carriage driving days came to an abrupt end due to an accident, which she describes thus:

I had a horrendous carriage wreck a couple of years ago — 5 dashing deer spooked my horse and she bolted. carriage flipped. i was life-flighted to stanford emergency where they discovered 8 broken ribs and a malignant cyst in the pancreas. by one of those crazy serendipitous miracles, the cancer was discovered in time to blitz it. so i survived against all odds, but my daredevil days are over. thank the goddess for horses in these days of shelter in place.

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