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The Idioms’ Guide To Chinese
Jun 14, 2017 20:03
On an early winter morning 16 years ago, I entered my office in a former school building in the north-central part of Beijing and said hello to our secretary. Jenny was a recent graduate, a proud Xinjiang native and a free spirit of sorts. Although she certainly didn’t want to be a secretary, she was happy to be employed. On this particular morning, she showed up to work at 8am. When I commended her for her early arrival, she gave me my first lesson in cultural interpretation.
“Good morning, Jenny,” I said cheerfully. “It’s great to see you here so early. You know, ‘The early bird gets the worm.’” Jenny looked at me blankly, tipped her head to the left and quipped: “I would rather be the late worm, who misses the early bird. I am here because I have a lot of work today, but don’t expect this every day.”
Jenny was known to throw curveballs. She questioned everything that came over her desk and delighted in letting you know she had a strong command for the English language . Yet never before in my life had I heard someone twist the meaning of “The early bird …” into something else. I became alert to other idioms. I began collecting them and digging deeply into their derivation and meanings.
My favorite idiom in Chinese is fang chang xian, diao da yu (放长线,钓大鱼), which literally means “placing a long line to catch a big fish.” I used this often to describe the patience I exercised in waiting to find my wife. To which she often responds that my efforts are always hu tou she wei (虎头蛇尾). If you have the head of a tiger and the tail of a snake, you’re somebody who talks big but delivers small.
When I first arrived in China, everyone gave me advice about how to succeed here. Mozhe shitou guo he (摸着石头过河), many people said to me. That expression means “feel the stones to get to the other side of the river.” The closest equivalent in English would be “to take baby steps” or “to take one step at a time.” Over the past 20 years, people have also often quoted to me the famous comment made by Deng Xiaoping as China began opening up to the outside world: “It doesn’t matter if it is a black cat, or a white cat, as long as you catch the mouse.” (Buguan hei mao bai mao, zhuo dao laoshu jiu shi hao mao. 不管黑貓白貓,捉到老鼠就是好貓.)
How to make sense of all of these expressions, I wondered? And did they have deeper meanings that can help us understand cultural differences?
If you listen to Noam Chomsky, the celebrated American linguist, he argues that there is little difference in languages. “There is a universal grammar for all human languages – essentially, that languages don’t really differ from one another in significant ways,” explains Lera Boroditsky, a Stanford psychology professor, by way of summer Chomsky's thories. “And because languages didn’t differ from one another, the theory went, it made no sense to ask whether linguistic differences led to differences in thinking.”
So I began to think of other common English idioms and how similar concepts were expressed in China
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