The Rich and Varied Use of Idioms in Chinese Culture (Part 2)

November 29, 2011 at 9:00 am | Posted in Asia, Culture, Discoveries, Discussion, Good Advice, Life Lessons, Moments from History, Reflections, Relevance to Today | Leave a comment
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By Zhi Zhen

( Continued from Part 1

Daily Life, Education, and the Arts as Cultural Influences for Chinese Idioms

Chinese idioms reveal the basic contents of Chinese culture, as well as the unique psychological structure, way of thinking, aesthetic perception, and value system of the Han people (the largest ethnic group in China). They precisely and vividly describe Chinese people’s views on life, society, and other philosophical ideations.

For example,

  • An (be content with) Pin (poverty) Le (devoted to) Dao (spiritual things)” (安贫乐道) refers to being content with poverty and happily pursuing the spiritual. “Ming (clearly) Bian (differentiate) Shi (right) Fei (wrong)” (明辨是非) refers to one clearly knowing what is the right or wrong.
  • Zheng (righteous) Qi (spirit) Lin Ran (awing appearance)” (正气凛然) refers to inspiring awe by upholding justice. “Man (the conceited) Zhao (incurring) Sun (losses), Qian (the modest) Shou (reaping) Yi (benefits)” (满招损,谦受益) indicates that the conceited incurs failure, while the modest receives benefits.

People’s behavior in their daily lives are also reflected in the idioms. For example,

  • Wen (gentle) Liang (kind) Gong (respectful) Jian (sparing) Rang (modest)” (温良恭俭让) means tell people to be gentle, kind, respectful, sparing, and modest.

Chinese idiom stories are part of Chinese history, and every Chinese idiom carries a profound meaning. Through the refinement of history and the spreading among numerous people via word of mouth, every Chinese idiom has become deep, meaningful, clear, and concise, and it allows people to learn about Chinese history and principles.

Several examples follow:

  • Gao (high) Shan (mountain) Liu (flowing) Shui (water)” (高山流水) of Yu Boya and Zhong Ziqi. (See for the explanation of the story.)
  • Yun (devising) Chou (strategies) Wei Wo (a command tent)” (运筹帷幄) refers to devising victorious strategies in a command tent of Zhang Liang. (See for more information about Zhang Liang.)
  • Ju Gong Jin Cui” (鞠躬尽瘁) refers to serving the country devotedly until death. This is from Zhuge Liang, the prime minister of the State of Shu in the Three Kingdoms period.
  • Wen (hearing) Ji (rooster’s crow) Qi Wu (get up and practice the martial art with sword)” (闻鸡起舞) of Zu Ti. This idiom refers to when Zu Ti, a famous general in the Han Dynasty, was young, he got up and practiced the martial arts with swords upon hearing the crow of a rooster.
  • Ru (enter) Mu (wood) San (three) Fen (a unit of length)” (入木三分) refers to the ink of calligraphy goes three fens deep into the wood. From Wang Xizhi (the most famous master of Chinese calligraphy in Jin Dynasty).
  • De (virtue or morality) Gao (high or rich) Wang (reputation) Zhong (a lot)” (德高望重) is from Fu Bi, a famous official in the Song dynasty, who had a magnificent level of tolerance, even when he was young. (See for more stories about Fu Bi), and
  • Jing Zhong (completely loyal to) Bao (serve) Guo (country)” (精忠报国) refers to serving the country with unreserved loyalty, from Yue Fei. (See for more stories of Yue Fei).

Traditional Chinese culture pays great attention to education.

  • Shi (teacher) Tao (principles) Zun Yan (respect and dignity)” (师道尊严) indicates that when teachers are respected, the principles that they teach are respected by people.
  • Zun (respect) Shi (teacher) Zhong (pay attention to) Dao (Tao, the principles)” (尊师重道) means respecting the teacher and paying attention to principles are highly emphasized moral principles and ethical norms in China. The idiom “Shi Tao Zun Yan” came from “Li Ji – Xue Ji” (Book of Rites – Record on the Subject of Education), which states, “As far as learning is concerned, what is most difficult is to find strict teachers. Only when the teachers are strict can the students appreciate the Tao (the principles). Only when the Tao is appreciated can people respect learning.” “Zun Shi Zhong Dao” originated from Hou Han Shu – Kong Xi Zhuan (History of the Later Han – Biography of Kong Xi), “I hear that no sagacious kings do not respect teachers and value the Tao (principles).”

The ancient Chinese people have tied together the concepts of respecting teachers and respecting the Tao. They believed that the Tao is the truth about the cosmos and human lives, and following the Tao is the same as one’s materializing the highest value of one’s life.

The ancient Chinese people pointed out that the principle of being a teacher is about respect and nobleness. They promoted and safeguarded the principle of respecting teachers and the Tao. When the teachers are respected, students can then realize the highness of the Tao, and in this way can the principles, knowledge, and skills taught by the teachers be respected. For example,

  • Sheng (Cheng Yi) Men (door) Li (standing) Xue (in snow)” (程门立雪) is a well-known story in Chinese history. The story is from History of Song – Biography of Yang Shi, “Yang Shi and You Zuo went to see Cheng Yi, a famous Confucian philosopher at that time. Cheng was sitting there mediating with his eyes closed. Yang Shi and You Zuo then respectfully stood outside the door in the severe snowy weather. When Cheng woke up, the snow was already one foot deep.” This idiom is later used to describe ones’ respecting teachers and piously pursuing the Tao.

Chinese idioms also reflect the traditional Chinese arts. A nation with a remote history must have a rich and colorful culture and arts. Chinese literature, calligraphy, painting, music, dancing, and so on are the essential parts of the Chinese national spirit and culture. The content of these arts are also inevitably reflected in the Chinese idiom. Several examples follow:

  • Wen (literature) Yi (used for) Zai (expressing) Dao (Tao)” (文以载道) refers to using literature to express the Tao, which reveals the value of literature.
  • Piao (floating) Ruo (like) Fu Yun (fleeting clouds), Jiao (vigorous) Ruo (like) Jing (alarmed) Long (dragon)” (飘若浮云,矫若惊龙), which is used to describe Chinese calligraphy.
  • Miao Shou (ones with superb skills) Dan Qing (the colors used for painting)” (妙手丹青) and
  • Wu (Painter Wu Daozi) Dai (girdles or ribbons) Dang Feng (wind)” (吴带当风) depict the vividness of the paintings.

Take music as another example. The music of ancient China was very developed and had its own characteristics. Putting some of the idioms together that reflect music, one can see the contents of the traditional Chinese music.

From the idioms of “Si Zhu Guan Xian (string and wind instruments)” (丝竹管弦), “Jin (metal music instrument) Shi (musical stone) Xian Si (string instruments)” (金石弦丝), “Zhong (bells) Gu (drums) Qi (all) Ming (playing)” (钟鼓齐鸣), and others, people can identify the musical instruments played in ancient China.

Idioms like “Huang Zhong [the first of the Six Positive (Yang) Tones in the ancient Chinese Twelve Tones, being most resounding and clear] Da Lu [one of the Six Negative (Yin) Tones in the Twelve Tones]” (黄钟大吕) describes the solemn, supremely wonderful harmony of music or words.

Wu (five) Yin (tones) Liu (six) Lu (modes)” (五音六律) refers to the five tones and six modes of ancient Chinese music. Other music-related idioms have recorded the unique ancient Chinese music theory of “Twelve Tones”. The Gongdiao Theory (Theory of Modes of the Ancient Chinese Music) was thus developed.

Idioms like “Jin (extremely) Shan (good) Jin (extremely) Mei (beautiful)” (尽善尽美) refers to the consummately perfect. “Yu (residual) Yin (voice) Rao (lingering in) Liang (house beams)” (余音绕梁) means although the singing is over, the singing voice is still lingering around the beams of the house. This reflects the realms that the ancient Chinese pursued in music.

From these Chinese idioms, people can also get a systematic and complete picture of other ancient Chinese art forms and the value systems that developed based on these art forms.

Nature as a Source for Chinese Idioms

Chinese idioms contain mountains and rivers, plants, animals, and artifacts, each of which embodies the value perception and aesthetic perception in the Chinese national culture. The idioms can depict the beauty of the natural landscapes. Here are a few examples:

  • Fan (dense) Hua (flowers) Si (like) Jin (colorful brocade)” (繁花似锦);
  • Lu (green) Cao (grass) Ru (like) Yin (mat)” (绿草如茵);
  • Shan (mountain) Ming (light or green) Shui (water or river) Xiu (beautiful or picturesque)” (山明水秀); and
  • Niao (birds) Yu (singing) Hua (flowers) Xiang (giving forth their fragrance)” (鸟语花香).
  • Idioms like “Wan (ten thousand) Xiang (aspects) Geng (change) Xin (renew)” (万象更新) and “Xin Xin (thriving) Xiang Rong (flourish prosperous)” (欣欣向荣) show people lively natural scenes that are full of vigor.

Pines, cypresses, plums, lotuses, and so on are endowed with symbolic meanings because of their unique characteristics. For example,

  • Sui (season) Han (cold) Zhi (know) Song (pines) Bo (cypress)” (岁寒知松柏) indicates that the qualities of the pine and the cypress stand out even more when it gets cold.
  • Ao (looking down upon) Xue (snow) Ling (bullying) Shuang (frost)” (傲雪凌霜) means being unafraid of snow and frost—referring to the plum.
  • Chu (grow out of) Yu Ni (mud) Er (but) Bu (does not) Ran (get polluted)” (出淤泥而不染) means the lotus grows out of the mud but does not get polluted by it.

Mountains and rivers in the Chinese idioms not only convey the common meaning of geographic locations, they are also endowed with symbolic meaning. For example, Mount Tai (one of the five famous big mountains in China) is deemed high, huge, solemn, and noble by the Chinese; so it is considered the most important one of the Five Mountains. Examples of such idioms follow:

  • Wen (stable) Ru (like) Tai Shan (Mount Tai )” (稳如泰山) describes something to be as stable and unshakeable as Mount Tai . “Deng (climb) Tai Shan (Mount Tai ) Er Xiao (small) Tian Xia (the world)” (登泰山而小天下) means after climbing up to Mount Tai , one then knows that the world is small. This symbolizes that one has a broad view when one is at a high point.
  • The idiom “Tai Shan (Mount Tai ) Bu (does not) Rang (exclude) Tu Rang (fine earth or pebbles)” (泰山不让土壤) means that Mount Tai does not repulse the tiny pebbles. Because of its nature, Mount Tai can become so tall. This is analogous to one’s being tolerant and having a broad mind of inclusion.
  • Tai Shan ( Mount Tai ) Bei Dou (North Star)” (泰山北斗) refers to individuals who are highly virtuous, enjoy a high reputation, and are highly respected.

There are also many frequently used idioms that are derived from animals. For example, dragons, phoenixes, and Qilin (Chinese unicorn) are the magical and unique animals in ancient Chinese fables. They are noble, awe-inspiring, and auspicious; so they are used to symbolize auspice. The well-known idiom, “Long (dragons) Fei (fly) Feng (phoenixes) Wu (dance)” (龙飞凤舞) comes from inscriptions on the Tablets of Biao Zhong Guang by Su Shi (a famous intellectual in Song Dynasty), “Tiao River comes out of Tianmu Mountain. Dragon flies and phoenix dances, and they all gather at Lin An (a place).” “Long Fei Feng Wu” is used to describe a bold, unrestrained, majestic momentum or vivid and lively postures. “Bai (hundreds) Niao (birds) Chao (follow) Feng (phoenix)” (百鸟朝凤) comes from Book of Tang (Dynasty), “Some have said that they saw a phoenix in Haizhou City, and hundreds of birds were following it. They flew to the north toward Cangwu Mountain.” This idiom means that some one is very virtuous and highly respected by people. “Feng (phoenix) Ming (sings) Lin (that is, Qilin, a magical, auspicious animal) Chu (appears)” (凤鸣麟出) means that when a phoenix sings, Qilin appears. The idiom is used to symbolize the coming out of sagacious persons.

Gods and Heaven as a Source for Idioms

In the history of China, the ancient Chinese showed their worship of heaven and gods and their reverence for those with high virtue through casting tripods and other golden or jade utensils that were of symbolic significance. The culture of gold and jade is manifested everywhere in China. Well-known idioms include

  • Jing Cheng Suo Zhi (with whole-hearted dedication), Jin (gold) Shi (rock) Wei Kai (open)” (精诚所至, 金石为开) means that with whole-hearted dedication, gold and rock will crack open. Zhuang Zi (a famous Taoist) said, “Sincerity is the pinnacle of one’s whole-hearted devotion. Without earnestness and absolute sincerity, one would not be able to move others.” That is, with sincerity, one can move heaven and earth and make gold and rock open. With the jade culture, the ancient Chinese compared their pursuits for the supreme realm of ideal morality to the jade’s strength, purity, and elegance. Ever since ancient times, there is the tradition of “a gentleman taking virtue as jade.” One’s carrying jade was a symbol of a gentleman’s having virtue. Idioms related to jade follow.
  • Ru (like) Gui (jade utensils) Ru (like) Zhang (jade ornaments)” (如圭如璋) is used to refer to a person with noble character. Shi Jing (Book of Songs) (which is the earliest existing collection of Chinese poems and songs) said, “Elegant and talented gentleman is like pure gold or tin, or jade utensils or ornaments.” Gui and Zhang are very precious jade utensils; they are used to symbolize the pure and wonderful character of a gentlemen.
  • The idiom, “Bing (ice) Qing (clear or transparent) Yu (jade) Jie (pure or innocent)” (冰清玉洁) came from Sima Qian’s “Letter to Zhi Boling,” which states, “Boling has incomparable talents and lofty aspirations. He pays attention to personal cultivation. He is as clear as ice and as pure as jade. He does not let himself get bogged down in trifle matters.” The idiom describes the person’s character being as clear as ice and as pure and flawless as jade, having clean conduct and noble and pure character.

Chinese idioms are profound in content, and they reflect the characteristics of traditional Chinese culture in a condensed and classic way. They embody the evolution of the Chinese humanistic culture over several thousands of years, enabling the traditional Chinese morality and principles to deeply take root in people’s minds. They enlighten and encourage people to respect heaven and know their fates, follow the great way, have the mindset of being “Fu (looking down) Yang (looking up) Wu (does not feel ) Kui (shamed)” (俯仰无愧) means do not feel shamed to gods and people. One should possess the lofty character of “Gao (high) Shan (mountain) Yang (looking up) Zhi, Jing Xing (wide road or righteousness and brightness) Xing Zhi” (高山仰止,景行行止) refers to a man who pursues lofty character.

Posting date: 3/23/2011
Category: Traditional Culture
Chinese version available at丰富多彩的成语文化-234277.html


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