Happy Niú Year!

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These days I'm getting so many greetings like this:

Chūnjié jiànkāng, niú zhuǎn qiánkūn.


"May you be healthy at this time of the Spring Festival, when the ox turns heaven and earth (the universe)."

The first part of this Lunar New Year's (February 12, 2021) greeting is transparent and easy to understand, but the second part makes you stop and wonder, "What?  How and why does the ox do that?"

The last two characters, although having vast implications, are not too troublesome:


The first two characters of the last clause, "niú zhuǎn 牛转" ("ox turns") are a homophonous pun on the beginning part of a common idiom, "niǔzhuǎn qiánkūn 扭转乾坤" ("to turn [around] / revolve heaven and earth"), which Denis Mair explains as follows:

"Niǔzhuǎn qiánkūn 扭转乾坤" ("to turn heaven and earth") is a pompous and empty phrase meaning to set matters aright across the land, perhaps even by overturning an established power structure. (Such a phrase deserves to be pricked by a pun!) Who better to attempt such a reversal than a bullheaded tough guy, and what better time than in the year of the ox? Note: niú 牛, idiomatic for arrogance or stubbornness that often ends up getting what it wants.

"Zhège rén hěn niú 這個人很牛" ("this guy is bullheaded"), but drawing on the slangy implications of 牛B/逼/比/屄 (the last character, extremely rare and vulgar, is the "real" sinograph for this morpheme), can also mean "this guy is [friggin'] awesome / amazing"), for which see the asterisked posts in "Selected readings" below.

This kind of paronomastic game is easy to play with the names of all of the zodiacal animals, for example:

"'jī'xiáng rúyì '鸡'祥如意" ("gallinaceously auspicious as you wish") for the idiom "jíxiáng rúyì 吉祥如意" ("auspicious as you wish", i.e., "good luck")

"mǎshàng fēng 'hóu' 马上封'猴'” ("may you soon be enfeoffed as macaque") for the idiom "mǎshàng fēng hóu 馬上封侯" ("may you soon be enfeoffed as marquis")

Bottom line:  in this year of the niú 牛, be aware that, when you make your Niú Year's greeting, this word — like so many Chinese words — is highly polysemous.  Make sure you use it in a context that the person to whom you address it won't misunderstand.

"Chūnjié jiànkāng, niú zhuǎn qiánkūn 春节健康,牛转乾坤" ("May you be healthy at this time of the Spring Festival, when the ox turns heaven and earth [the universe])" is innocent enough, where niú 牛 is used as a homophone of niǔ 扭, with the result that "niú zhuǎn qiánkūn 牛转乾坤" indicates the coming New Year of the Ox ("niú 牛") on the one hand, and "niǔzhuǎn qiánkūn 扭转乾坤" implies a good wish for "having a great new start / having great power in the coming new year") on the other.

Happy Niú Year, everybody!


Selected readings


[Thanks to Chenfeng Wang, Yijie Zhang, and Tong Wang.]



  1. Victor Mair said,

    February 11, 2021 @ 1:23 pm

    From Denis Mair:


    I appreciate that you have slyly couched your Chinese New Year wishes in terms of an etymological analysis.

    For my New Year celebration I'm going to eat sticky rice cake (nian-gao) which is a pun on New Year rice cake (nian-gao). In other words, I'll celebrate by eating a pun.

    Sticky rice treats made with nuo-mi are a New Year treat in Taiwanese home cooking. NIAN-GAO is a chewy steamed dessert made with glutinous rice flour. Glutinous rice treats are irresistible, but for older people they are a challenge to digest. A person who yields to the temptation of eating too many treats may not make it through the holiday season. So, there is a saying that is often brought up in this context: NIAN2-GUAN! NAN2-GUO4, which means that the "barrier" of the New Year festival season is hard to cross, i.e., "it's hard to survive the New Year.".

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 13, 2021 @ 3:11 pm

    That's the same 牛 as in 牛肉面, the very popular-in-Taiwan (although not pre-1949) soup my wife made for lunch today. Of course if you give 牛 its Taiwanese pronunciation rather than its Mandarin one, the wordplay into English doesn't work.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 13, 2021 @ 3:14 pm

    (I probably should have said 牛肉麵, but erred while copying-and-pasting. The 牛 remains constant, however.)

  4. ZHU Qingzhi said,

    February 15, 2021 @ 6:47 am

    Happy the New Year of OX.

    My translation of 牛轉乾坤 is

    Wishes the OX can help to turn (change) the qiankun (world) (to be better or to be free from Covid 19) in this year.

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