Archive for Idioms

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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"Blue-eyed person"

Cai Xia 蔡霞, a retired female professor from the Central Party School of the CCP has been denouncing Xi Jinping for his imperial aspirations and the CCP as a corrupt, zombie party.  Somehow, she managed to escape to the United States after her initial condemnations.

Fuming, the Party has cancelled her membership and vilified her perfidy:

After the Party School of the Central Committee of Communist Party of China (CPC) announced on Monday that it had rescinded the Party membership of retired professor Cai Xia and revoked her retirement benefits, Cai quickly became Western media's blue-eyed person.

Source:  "Cai Xia’s blatant betrayal is totally indefensible: Global Times editorial", Global Times* (8/19/20)

*An official CCP daily tabloid sponsored by the People's Daily.

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Revenge bedtime procrastination

Tweet by Daphne K. Lee:

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Shifting valences of "throwing the pot" in Chinese

There's an odd expression that has become virally popular in the PRC in recent weeks, viz., shuǎi guō 甩锅 (lit., "throw / toss the pot / pan", i.e., "shift the blame; pass the buck").

Expressions related to guō 锅 ("pot / pan") are not new.  For example, bèi guō 背锅 ("bear the blame"), and guō cóng tiān jiàng 锅从天降 ("accusation / blame coming from nowhere", lit., "pot falling from the sky").  Together with shuǎi guō 甩锅 (lit., "throw / toss the pot / pan") itself, they were popular long before their current application in connection with accusations of responsibility and culpability for the COVID-19 pandemic.

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How many sides does an equation have?

Tim Finin writes:

President Trump said Fauci wants to "play all sides of the equation" about reopening schools. I thought that was an unusual phrase and used google to search for it without the token Trump. There were three hits.

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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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"Racist dog whistling"

News brief on the (Australian) ABC website:

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Roll out of here like an egg, Xi

Tweet from Heitor@Heitormde:

The 0:36 video was taken just outside the gate of the Chinese embassy in Brasilia.

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"Forty Days and Forty Nights"

The old hymn and blues song of that title have been very much on my mind during the last couple of months.

George Hunt Smyttan (1856)

Forty days and forty nights
You were fasting in the wild;
Forty days and forty nights,
Tempted, and yet undefiled….

Muddy Waters (1956)

Forty days and forty nights, since my baby left this town
Sun shinin' all day long, but the rain keep falling down
She's my life I need her so, why she left I just don't know….

These are very different kinds of songs, yet they are both focused on a period of forty days and forty nights.  I've been thinking about these songs a lot in the current climate of far-reaching quarantines against the novel coronavirus epidemic centered on Wuhan, Hubei Province, China.

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Too tired to love: new set phrases in Pinyin

Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese has an extreme propensity for elision, truncation, and abbreviation, which is one of the factors that make it so hard to read.

Yesterday, we looked at the current Chinese proclivity for acronyms and initialisms, made much easier to produce and apply due to the use of digital technology and pinyin as part of an emerging Sinitic digraphia.  See "Chinese acronyms" (12/22/19).

In recent years, a new kind of quadrisyllabic "set phrase" has arisen in internet usage, one not based on historical allusion or other traditional source.  Here are seven typical examples:

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The Mandarin grammatical particle "le" — one or many?

When I was learning Mandarin over half a century ago, the more grammatically minded Chinese language teachers argued that historically and functionally there were multiple "le" particles that just happened to end up being written with the simple two-stroke character 了.  Then a contrary movement set in, and linguists tried to prune down all the "le" into two or even one, claiming that all of the different 了 developed out of an ur-了.

The irony of it all is that, before the 20th century, there was no established, systematic, explicit grammar for Sinitic languages in indigenous sources.

See, inter alia, Victor H. Mair (1997), "Ma Jianzhong and the Invention of Chinese Grammar," in Chaofen Sun, ed., Studies on the History of Chinese Syntax. Monograph Series Number 10 of Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 5-26.  (available on JSTOR here)

Mǎshì wéntōng 馬氏文通 (conventionally rendered as "Ma's Grammar", though it would probably be closer to the original meaning in Chinese to translate it as "Written Language Unobstructedness"; 1898)

Just as we have seen in a recent post, before the 20th century there was no Chinese concept of "word":

"HouseHold GarBage" (12/6/19)

Which leads to the question:  can you have grammar without words?

There have been countless papers, articles, dissertations, and monographs on le 了.  Here I'm going to introduce two dissertations on le 了 written within the last few decades and the latest monograph on le 了 as representative of what has been happening with regard to the conceptualization of this protean particle in recent times.

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A Chinese analog to English "you know"

It's only recently that I've heard a lot of students from mainland China say "nà shà 那啥" (lit., "that what").  At first it was hard to figure out exactly what they meant by it, but as I become more familiar with the contexts in which they deploy this phrase, I wonder if it is functionally something like the "you know" that is used so ubiquitously in English.

I think that 那啥 is basically a northeasternism that has swept across many other parts of China in the last few years.  It is a characteristic expression in comedic sketch (xiǎopǐn 小品 ).  Since this regional type of comedic skit has only lately become phenomenally popular outside of the northeast, that would account for the explosive spread of this term among my students, who come from all parts of China.  Prior to this year, I barely ever heard anyone not from the Northeast say it, but now I hear it spoken quite a bit by students from many different parts of China, although a few from southern China say they are not familiar with it.

Xiǎopǐn 小品 ("comedic sketch") is the Northeastern equivalent of xiàngsheng 相声 ("crosstalk; comic dialog"), centered in Beijing, but also much loved in Tianjin, Nanjing, and elsewhere, particularly in the north.  See "'Rondle it!'" (2/25/19) for an example.

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Maison d'être

Note from June Teufel Dreyer: "Driving around Coconut  Grove [Miami neighborhood] to admire old houses on back streets, [daughter] Elizabeth [Dreyer Geay] and I saw one with a plaque on the perimeter wall that read 'Maison d’Etre'":

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