Saturday, November 19, 2011


If you read from iPhone go to internet version

I invite you to read my book about Chinese idioms and sayings

לספר פתגמים סינים בעברית עיברו לאתר


五 花 八 门
Understanding China and its Idioms
Then and Now

Hila Berliner


Copyright ©2009 by Hila Berliner

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce

this book or portions thereof in any form

To my dear parents Aharon and Leah Berliner


I am indebted to a number of people for their help. First, I would like to thank my dear parents Leah and Aharon Berliner for their support and encouragement.

Many thanks to Naomi Paz for her enlightening comments, for her English editing, and for her generosity.

I would like to thank my friends Nevet Dolev, Amram Dolev, Eta Levin and Alice Geyer for their encouragement; and Chaim Gibalka     for his advice concerning the software used for the illustrations.

And, finally, I thank my Chinese friends, with whom I have connection through the Internet, for patiently answering my many questions about their life and culture.


China is mentioned in the Bible, Isaiah, 49, 12: "Behold, these shall come from far: and, lo, these from the north and from the west; and these from the land of Sinim". In Hebrew, China is "Sin" and its inhabitants are called "Sinim". Just as the people in the Holy Land considered China to be a remote country, so too did the Europeans, who called Eastern Asia "The Far East" and indeed still do so today. Even the European settlers in Australia have continued to use this term though Eastern Asia is actually north of Australia, and near to it. Moreover, just as the early Europeans believed that they lived in the center of the world, so too did the Chinese, who called their country, as early as two thousand years ago, the "Central Kingdom" 中国 (zhōng guó), which is what they still call it nowadays.

Apart from its geographical significance, the name "Central Kingdom" also had a moral meaning. China has a literature, philosophy and art all of its own. Indeed, China considered its culture superior to those of others, disseminating elements of its culture to the countries surrounding it, such as Japan and Korea.

In our own age, as the world becomes a global village through the use of the Internet and television satellite broadcasts, it is increasingly advantageous for Westerners to learn about Chinese culture, which is becoming more and more accessible. Country borders no longer obstruct the expansion of cultures. The saying of the Chinese philosopher Lao Zi 老子 (lǎozǐ) (604?-531 BCE), that a sage knows the whole world without ever leaving his home, is truer today than ever before.

Not a day passes without the media reporting news from China. There are those who envisage China in the not so distant future as the most powerful country in the world. This most densely populated country in the world has valuable cultural assets that have been preserved and developed throughout thousands of years. One of these assets is the Chinese language, which has an abundance of proverbs and sayings, many of which are still in common use.

My hope is that this book will encourage Westerners to enrich their own linguistic and expressive abilities by adopting and adapting from Chinese idioms and sayings, and thus also contribute to the picturesque in the language. I believe, moreover, that the more we Westerners learn about the Chinese culture, the smaller the cultural gap between China and the West will get.

An earlier attempt to bridge the gap between China and the West was made by the European missionaries to China in the 17th and 18th centuries, who not only studied Chinese sayings in order to convey Christian messages, but sometimes also published their research into these sayings. Such sayings can be classified into two main kinds: those that are specific products of the Chinese culture; and those endowed with a universal character, having parallels in Western cultures.

This book is directed at readers who are interested in the Chinese culture. For those who are studying the Chinese language, the book will contribute to broadening their knowledge. It is especially for such readers that the idiomatic phrases are presented in Chinese, with their pronunciation in Latin letters below them.

I have attempted to translate the sayings and idioms as closely as possible to their original meaning without damaging their intelligibility. Presenting the phrases in Chinese enables the appropriately equipped reader to follow the construction of the Chinese sentences, the order of their characters, their rhymes, etc.

Many of the proverbs are picturesque, borrowing images from daily life and from humankind's natural environment. This picturesqueness is deeply rooted in the Chinese script, one of the oldest in the world, with a history dating back to five thousand years ago. The Chinese script has served in the past, and continues to serve nowadays as well, as a powerful means of unification in China, where there are a vast number of local dialects.

Since the foundation of the Republic of China, Chinese writing has undergone several changes. During the years 1956-1959 the battle against illiteracy introduced new, simpler forms to the more prevalent Chinese characters, in order to prevent as well as to alleviate writing difficulties. As a part of this reform, the government both reduced the total number of characters, and simplified them by reducing the number of their strokes. In 1964, the number of such simplified characters rose from 515 to 2238, out of approximately 7,000 in general use. The final list of simplified characters was published in 1986. A standard pronunciation 普通话 (pǔ tōng huà) was introduced in Chinese schools as early as 1956.

There are six kinds of characters 六书(liù shū), classified according to the relationship between their form and meaning:

1. 象 形 (xiàng xíng) Pictograms - pictographic characters that imitate the form of a represented object. For example, the character 日 (rì) (literally: sun) was originally a circle with a dot in the middle. 木 (mù) signifies "tree", 门 (mén) signifies "door", 伞(sǎn) signifies "parasol" and 雨 (yǔ) signifies "rain".

Only a few hundred characters in the Chinese language constitute formal representations of objects from nature. Most of the characters are comprised of two components: a phonetic, which gives some indication of the pronunciation of the character; and a semantic radical, which sometimes offers a clue to the character's meaning.

2. 指事 (zhǐ shì) (literally: indication) Ideograms or indicatives. The principle is similar to that of the previous principle, but here the characters describe abstract ideas represented by strokes. For example: 一 (yī) signifies "one, 二 (èr) signifies "two", and 三 (sān) signifies "three". One stroke added to a pictogram frequently indicates an abstract idea. For example: 末 (mò) (木 (mù) + upper stroke) signifies "treetop" and 本 (běn) (木 (mù) + lower stroke) signifies "root".

3. 形声 (xíng shēng) (literally: form and sound) This is a pronunciation definer – these characters comprise an element that refers to significance (the root or the radical), and a phonetic element. For example: 洋 (yáng) (literally: ocean), is composed of a root element, in this case "water" (the left part of the character), and pronunciation element - 羊 (yáng) (literally: a sheep).

4. 会意 (huì yì) (literally: joined meaning). These constitute composite ideograms - characters comprised of simple characters, together forming a new character with a new significance expressed jointly through their interaction. For example: 男 (nán) (literally: man) is comprised of 田 (tián) (literally: a field) and of 力 (lì) (literally: power). Another example: 鸣 (míng) (literally: chirping) is comprised of 口 (kǒu) (literally: a mouth) and 鸟 (niǎo) (literally: a bird).

5. 转注 (zhuǎn zhù) Mutually explanatory characters. These characters broaden the significance by means of adding a new formal element to form a new character, pronounced in a different way to that of the original. Such characters are usually synonyms or near-synonyms. For example: 窍 (qiào) (literally: opening) and 空 (kōng) (literally: air). Sometimes these synonyms have somewhat different meanings, like in 老 (lǎo) (literally: old) and 考 (kǎo) (literally: test). Of the six kinds of characters, this is the most difficult to interpret.

6. 假借 (jiǎ jiè) (literally: borrowing) This is a character that acquires a new meaning by borrowing a character that represents a homophone or near-homophone, in order to create a new meaning. For example, the character 來 (in traditional Chinese writing) (lái) depicted the wheat plant and meant "wheat" in ancient times. The words "wheat" and "to come" in Chinese had had the same pronunciation; therefore, the character 來 (lái) was borrowed in order to represent the verb "to come". The pronunciation of the original word that meant "wheat", has now changed, and currently it is pronounced mài, now written 麥 (mài).

In Chinese we need to note the difference between a word and a character. A word is a speech unit comprising one or more characters. Usually, each character has several meanings. In form, all Chinese characters take up the same amount of space, due to their block-like square nature. This square form was introduced in the 11th century CE.

Unlike many languages in the western world, which are based on reason and logic, the Chinese language is based on images and intuition. In their earliest forms, the characters were abstract images of objects and ideas. Eight hundred characters provide many more possibilities of expression than eight hundred words in English, since a combination of different characters in Chinese can form a word with a meaning different from the original meaning of the individual characters that form it.

In the Mandarin The word "Mandarin" has been in use since 1589 CE. Its origin is in the Sanskrit word "mantrin", meaning "counselor". It indicates an official language, used by the government officials (the Mandarins) in traditional China. dialect (the standard one) there are four tones, not related to the old tones. Change in tone brings change in meaning. Every character has its own pronunciation. However, many different characters have exactly the same pronunciation.

Every dialect has its own tones. In the Cantonese dialect, for instance, there are nine tones, whereas in Mandarin, the official dialect, there are four tones: 平 (píng) (horizontal), 上 (shàng) (ascending), 去 (qù) (falling), 入 (rù) (entering). For example, the same word that is pronounced "mai", means both, "To sell" 卖 (mài) and "to buy" 买 (mǎi). The difference between these two characters lies in the tone and form of the character.

The phonetic pronunciation of the Chinese characters is presented in the book in the Mandarin dialect, written in Latin transcription according to the Pin Yin 拼音 (pīn yīn) system, which is in general use in modern-day China. This transcription, developed in Soviet Russia in the 1930s and introduced by the Chinese in the 1950s, replaced the old Wade-Giles system and became a standard system of pronunciation of names and places in 1976. For example: Mao Ze Dong 毛泽东 (máo zé dōng) was pronounced Mao Tse Tung in the Wade Giles system, and the name of the capital city Beijing 北 京 (běi jīng) was pronounced Peking in the Wade Giles system.

The Chinese language is sparing with words. Words do not change according to singular or plural, gender or time (tenses). There is no need to add a character to specify tense (past, present or future) when mentioning the timing of the action (such as yesterday, today, tomorrow etc.). There is also no conjugation of verbs or nouns and no distinction between masculine and feminine. The same word is used to indicate a verb in the past, present and future tenses. Unlike in the English language, words are not classified as parts of speech such as noun, verb, adjective or adverb. The same word can function as any one of these parts of speech. For example, the word 慢 (màn), which signifies "slow", can function as a verb, adjective, or adverb. This eases the study of the language, but makes it difficult to translate.

As opposed to English, in Chinese it is impossible to clarify meaning by spelling a word out loud (by pronouncing the letters that compose it). Chinese characters cannot be "spelled" in this way. That is why when Chinese people talk to each other and there is a misunderstood word, they show what the character looks like by writing it with the index finger of one hand on the palm of the other.

The Chinese language developed into two very different forms. One is the spoken language, which has changed phonetically through history; the other is the classical language – the written language that has not paralleled the transformations in the spoken language and has become a fixed expression in which the vocabulary and grammar have not changed.

Classical Chinese literature can be read and understood by all, not being identified with any particular period in history or dialect. Even though there have been and still are many different dialects spoken in China, as different as English and French, the classical literature has prevented the creation of local literatures and has ensured a common means of communication, shared by all Chinese scholars. From this aspect, there is a resemblance between classical Chinese and Latin, the language of scholars in medieval Europe.

Texts written in the Zhou 周 (zhōu) dynasty (1046-221 BCE) remained the traditional primer texts for children for hundreds of years, in fact until the twentieth century. These classic texts became a model for style and thought, and molded the ideology of Chinese scholars for generations.

As stated, the Chinese language is sparing with words; but literary Chinese is even more economical. Idioms and proverbs, most of them borrowed from literary works, are very concise, expressing much in a few characters. They do not include prepositions. Consequently, translating them into Western languages and giving them a clear significance requires the addition of complementary words. This frugality of expression calls for special deciphering, and, without an understanding of the context, it is difficult to comprehend the meaning of these sayings.

While translating these idioms, with the original texts in Chinese I was assisted by their translations into other languages, since translations often interpret the text.

Proverbs and pearls of wisdom are very much integrated into everyday language in China. People spice up every conversation with folk proverbs and with those borrowed from ancient historians, poets and philosophers. By presenting philosophical thoughts in a few concise words, the proverbs add color and drama to the everyday spoken language.

The Chinese people conceive the application of proverbs as a measure by which to evaluate the general education of the speaker, their knowledge of literature, history and philosophy, and their wisdom. For the Chinese people, there is nothing more impressive than using proverbs in the right context. Such use clarifies ideas, deepens meaning and sometimes adds some humor to the conversation. Sayings evoke associations in the mind of the listener and turn listening, which is usually a passive mental process, into an active one.

In the Chinese language many idioms and proverbs provide an entirely different message to that of their literal meaning. For example, 马马虎虎 (mǎ mǎ hū hū), literally meaning "horse horse tiger tiger", figuratively means "so-so" or "careless".

China, due to its size and long history, has more proverbs than any other country in the world. Wisdom and moral sayings were to be found everywhere: on ornamental vessels, utility vessels, fans, and hanging scrolls.

The sources of theses phrases are diverse. Some were coined in the folk culture and others were borrowed from stories, from philosophers such as Confucius Named in Chinese 孔子 (kǒng zǐ) or 孔 夫子 (kǒng fū zǐ), literally: Master Kong. (551-479 BCE) and Mencius Named in Chinese 孟子 (mèng zǐ). (371-289 BCE), or from ancient history books.

Unlike English sayings, the Chinese sayings often have a deliberately fixed number of characters. Some of them rhyme. Most prevalent is the use of four characters, but there are also sayings composed of three characters, six, seven, eight, three + three, four + four, five +five, six + six, seven + seven, etc.

Among researchers of proverbs there are those who make a clear distinction between folk sayings and sayings borrowed from the literature or from philosophers like Confucius. Sayings derived from the Chinese philosophers are usually long, while folk sayings are mostly short. While philosophers' sayings represent the wisdom of one specific individual, folk sayings are the "wisdom of many", originating in the language of the home, of peddlers, and others. The folk sayings are wittier and easier to absorb and remember than those of the philosophers. Modern Chinese intellectuals consider that the folk proverbs, being applicable to every imaginable situation, are more effective in describing a realistic world and in covering a variety of subjects. Peasants have coined many proverbs. They, who have been the majority of the Chinese population, are not scholars in the traditional sense; however, they have accumulated much knowledge about life and their surroundings. Their idiomatic phrases summarize their wisdom, life experience and perceptions, mainly related to agriculture, the weather, the land, and the flora and fauna. Some proverbs are didactic and preach moral behavior; others call for distrust of the judicial system and warn against committing crimes.

There is an almost infinite number of beautiful proverbs and sayings, some not familiar even to many scholars. I have selected here those expressions that in my view will evoke the interest of Western readers, being in everyday use, and having used the Internet as a measuring tool. I performed searches using Google and 白度 (bái dù) (a Chinese search engine) to find sites that present the sayings in full.

In this book I present philosophers' sayings, which are considered as high culture, together with folk proverbs, which are considered low culture. In fact, however, these two kinds of idiomatic phrases have influenced one another throughout history. Folk researchers claim that the common people inspired literature and that high culture penetrated the low culture. Many of the proverbs offer popular versions of the moral code of Confucius. Some are found integrated into texts.

The British philosopher and essayist Francis Bacon (1561-1626) wrote that "The genius, wit and spirit of a nation are discovered in its proverbs”. Studying Chinese proverbs is a good way to penetrate deep into Chinese culture. These sayings, passed from generation to generation over more than two thousand years, reflect folk wisdom. Every saying expresses an idea in a concise simple language. Though the sayings are very old, handing them on from generation to generation has molded moral behavior in China. The Chinese people, no matter which dialect they use, share the same idioms, proverbs and sayings.

Being short and easy to absorb, proverbs were very effective as a propaganda tool during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), at a time when slogans and sayings were very popular.

Such idiomatic phrases have diverse forms of construction. Some rhyme as in poetry; some are constructed in parallel form – subject parallels subject, predicate parallels predicate, etc; some present antithesis, such as "There is no way to heaven and there is no gate to hell"; some present paradox, such as "Fast is slowly and slowly is fast". (In the latter we also find crossing words, in which the word order of the first phrase contrasts the word order of the second phrase); and yet others present metaphor.

The contrasts expressed in the Chinese proverbs reflect the Chinese perception of the world, based on the dynamics of yin and yang. These dynamics, representing contrasts such as hot and cold, day and night, masculine and feminine, are occasionally expressed in words that are comprised of opposites. For example: 多少(duō shǎo) (literally: many few) signifies "how much", "how many" , "amount" ; 大小 (dà xiǎo) (literally: big small) signifies "measurement", "size "; 东西 (dōng xī) (literally: east west) signifies "thing" "something"; 远近 (yuǎn jìn) (literally: far close) signifies "distance";轻重 (qīng zhòng) (literally: light heavy) signifies "weight" ; 长短 (cháng duǎn) (literally: long short) signifies "length"; and 高低 (gāo dī) (literally: high low) signifies "height" etc.

Many of the proverbs have changed over time, receiving a new meaning, sometimes contrasting with that of the original.

In Western languages we can find proverbs parallel to those of the Chinese. Some of them appear here in the book alongside the Chinese proverbs. The existence of proverbs, common to China and the West, supports the contention that proverbs are basic elements of human thought, expressing pure logic. Nonetheless, there are many idiomatic phrases unique to China.

In order to understand certain of the Chinese idiomatic phrases and proverbs, therefore, it is necessary to understand the culture from which they derive. To assist in such understanding, I present below the main ancient literary sources from which they were borrowed. Likewise, I offer a brief outline of China's history, the Chinese perception of the world, religion and philosophy in China, the Chinese traditional calendar, cosmological perception in Chinese tradition, and symbols in the Chinese tradition.


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  1. hi Hila, my name is Christopher and am also a big fan of Chinese culture. I am a Nigerian but i speak Chinese (learnt it in Nigeria) i just read your book and i think it is awesome! I also blog about Chinese...hope we can be friends and exchange ideas about China. Renshi ni hen gaoxing!

    1. Thank you. I will be glad to be your friend and to exchange ideas about China.

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