"Take off your pants and fart"

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Here's what she says:

tuō kùzi fàngpì 脱裤子放屁 ("take off your pants and fart")

Five syllables.  That's not much of a sample to go on, but I must say that it gave me great pleasure to hear her say them.  The pronunciation, rhythm, parsing, intonation — all were superb.  Perhaps it's because she is a thespian and an Oxonian.

So, what is this business of taking off one's trousers when one farts.  What's the message?

We have to understand that what we're hearing is not the whole saying.  We have to supply the second part, which has been elided.  This is part of a class of proverbs called xiēhòuyǔ 歇后语 ("truncated witticisms"), of which there are thousands.  This is how they work:  someone says the first part, then the auditor fills in the second part to complement and make sense of what the first part implies.

In this case, the person who initiates the exchange says tuō kùzi fàngpì 脱裤子放屁 ("take off your pants and fart"), and the respondent supplies duōcǐyījǔ 多此一举 ("superfluous; make an unnecessary / extraneous / useless move / action; a totally unnecessary act").

The master scholar of this genre is John Rohsenow, who is the author of Hàn-Yīng xiēhòuyǔ cídiǎn 汉英歇后语词典 (A Chinese-English Dictionary of Enigmatic Folk Similes [Xiēhòuyǔ]) (Tucson:  University of Arizona Press, 1991).  A new edition of this classic is slated to appear in the ABC Chinese Dictionary Series at the University of Hawaii Press.  Here is what John says about the xiēhòuyǔ 歇后语 ("truncated witticism") under discussion (p. 235a):

tuō kùzi fàngpì — (1) duō fèi yídào shǒuxù (2) bùbíyào

脱裤子放屁 — (1) 多费一道手续 (2) 不必要

removing one's pants to break wind — (1) engaging in a superfluous procedure (2) unnecessary

Here's the incipit of another xiēhòuyǔ 歇后语 ("truncated witticism") about breaking wind:

qiūyǐn fàngpì 蚯蚓放屁 ("an earthworm farts")

This one is not in John's dictionary (he has another one about using earthworms to catch carp), but the concluding part is hilarious.  If you can't figure it out, I'll tell you what it is. 

Some people say that tuō kùzi fàngpì 脱裤子放屁 ("take off your pants and fart") is like the chéngyǔ 成語 ("set phrase") huàshétiānzú 画蛇添足 (lit., "drawing legs on a snake", i.e., "superfluous", often rendered as "gilding the lily"), but there is a significant difference.  Although they both may be interpreted as "unnecessary; superfluous"), the latter takes something that is beautiful and makes it no longer beautiful or satisfactory, whereas with tuō kùzi fàngpì 脱裤子放屁 ("take off your pants and fart"), by doing so one does not ruin the fart.  One has simply done something that is otiose or unnecessary, a wasted, useless expenditure of effort.

Tuō kùzi fàngpì 脱裤子放屁 ("take off your pants and fart") is more about the irony regarding the act of folly (spending energy and time doing useless things, unaware of the fact that it is not necessary at all/ mistakenly assuming that the unnecessary step is needed in the process of doing something), while "huàshétiānzú 画蛇添足" (lit., "drawing legs on a snake" is more about "overdoing it" (from one's conceit/ pretension/ ignorance, etc.)

In comparison with "gilding the lily", tuō kùzi fàngpì 脱裤子放屁 ("take off your pants and fart") differs mainly in three aspects: it's inherently more ironic and vulgar; it lacks the reference of an existing perfection ("lily"); and it's more about adding unnecessary steps in order to attain something undone rather than embellishing something that has already been finished (in other words, it's about "doing it", while "gilding the lily" is about "overdoing it").

In all, "tuō kùzi fàngpì 脱裤子放屁" ("take off your pants and fart") is used for satirizing, teasing, or criticizing a superfluous act in an ironic, snide, and vulgar way, making a crack about someone stupidly taking completely unnecessary steps to achieve a particular aim.

WARNING:  Do not say "tuō kùzi fàngpì 脱裤子放屁" ("take off your pants and fart") in polite company.


[Thanks to Yijie Zhang, Chenfeng Wang, Yixue Yang, and Chau Wu]


  1. cameron said,

    March 24, 2021 @ 12:09 am

    Would the earthworm take off its straw hat to fart?

  2. John Rohsenow said,

    March 24, 2021 @ 3:59 am

    Nali, nali. Once again I thank Victor for his encouragement and support.
    One VERY small point: by translating tuō kùzi fàngpì as "removing one's pants [IN ORDER] TO break wind " I meant to suggest that one performs this superfluous act IN ORDER TO/BEFORE breaking wind, as though it were a necessary precondition, when of course it is not, which is why I prefer "TO" over "AND". (I did say it was a VERY small point :-)
    As for qiūyǐn fàngpì 蚯蚓放屁 ("an earthworm farts") I confess to being in the dark, awaiting Victor's explanation with the rest of you, and with
    MY, (and hopefully HIS) pants still on. Thanks!

  3. Calvin said,

    March 24, 2021 @ 6:51 am

    OK, at the risk of spoiling the fun, I'll bite…


  4. linda seebach said,

    March 24, 2021 @ 7:43 am

    . . . To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, To throw a perfume on the violet, . . .

  5. Thomas Hutcheson said,

    March 24, 2021 @ 5:44 pm

    Somewhat similar is the Colombian, "Subirse a Monserrate para ir a Bogota,. Monserrate being locates IN Bogota it would be impossible to go up Monserrate without already having gone to Bogota

  6. Elizabeth in Astoria said,

    March 24, 2021 @ 6:31 pm

    This reminds me of a New York Times article dealing with red state/blue state matters in which the term "fly-over country" was translated in the Chinese language NYT edition as 鸟不拉屎的地方, that is "a place so uninviting that birds don't even stop to shit there."

  7. Paul Hopkins said,

    March 25, 2021 @ 9:51 am

    I enjoyed this post very much, but I do have to ask: why would being an Oxonian mean she pronounces Chinese well?

  8. Victor Mair said,

    March 25, 2021 @ 11:39 am

    @Paul Hopkins

    In the sense that she is educated, pronounces things well in general, and has clear enunciation — which you can hear from her manner of speech in English. Same line of reasoning for her being a thespian.

  9. Amanda Adams said,

    March 25, 2021 @ 3:24 pm

    Indeed, she's a Wadham woman. Makes her pronunciation even better.

  10. Josh R. said,

    March 25, 2021 @ 7:46 pm

    Interestingly, the term 蛇足 (dasoku, "snake legs") has made it into Japanese from the Chinese 成語, but it lacks the nuance of an addition that ruins something, and just means "redundancy, superfluity."

    Other common Japanese terms that come from 成語:
    矛盾 mujun, "paradox, contradiction" (lit. spear and shield)
    推敲 suikou, "revise/polish (a written composition)" (lit. push or knock)
    完璧 kanpeki "perfection" (lit. "take complete care of a jade bi" – kinda. This one is not given to pithy glossing.)

  11. Elizabeth in Astoria said,

    April 3, 2021 @ 9:38 am

    transnational xiehouyu:
    Veterans of Dayton Accords can relate.

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