Public figures the world over are known to cite ancient Chinese wisdom when making their case – US Supreme Court Justice Kennedy recently cited Confucius in the ruling legalizing gay marriage there, while then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton used a Chinese proverb from “The Art of War” during one visit to China. But Chinese humor, often derived from its vivid imagery, is usually left in the vernacular. The following are seven Chinese idioms which aren’t commonly used in English — yet — but should be, on topics ranging from infidelity to snobbery.
- 脚踏两条船 (jiǎo tà liǎng tiáo chuán) “To stand with one’s feet on two different boats” – This is the Chinese phrase for someone who is in relationships with, or leading on, two different people at the same time. The closest idiomatic expression might be “two-timing,” but it lacks in imagery. It’s much easier to visualize some chump trying his hardest to balance with one foot in a canoe and another in a fishing boat before falling, some minutes later, into the icy lake of karma.
- 睡得像死猪一样 (shuì de xiàng sǐ zhū yīyàng) “To sleep like dead pig” – A clear winner over its closest English equivalents, “to sleep like a log” and “to sleep like a rock.” The pig is dead. Don’t bother setting an alarm clock or calling it seven times to ask “Why are you late for the 10:00 am sales meeting??!?”
- 有奶便是娘 (yǒu nǎi biàn shì niáng) “Whoever has milk is mom” – Opportunism, anyone? To my knowledge, there is no similar English idiom describing the attitude of shameless benefit-seeking in which the subject is willing to do anything for a Klondike bar, so to speak.
- 一粒老鼠屎坏了一锅汤 (yī lì lǎo shǔ shǐ huài le yīguō tāng) “One piece of mouse shit spoiled a pot of soup” – This is the Chinese equivalent of “one bad apple can spoil the bunch.” Other variants of the saying have the mouse shit spoiling porridge instead – my guess is it doesn’t improve the flavor or nutritional value of either.
- 挂羊头卖狗肉 (guà yang tóu mài gǒu ròu) “To hang up a sheep’s head but sell dog meat” – A slightly sneakier version of the “bait and switch.” You have to hand it to this culinary twist on “false advertising.”
- 狗屎运 (gǒu shǐ yùn) Literally “dog-shit luck” – this phrase actually describes a great, not terrible, turn of events. This is a throwback to the days when, in rural China, people used excrement for fertilizer and there was not enough supply to meet demand. Dog shit could be sold for cold hard cash or used to grow crops, and either way, accidentally stepping in it was a source of joy, not sorrow.
- 掉书袋 (diào shū dài) “Drop a sack of books” – To embellish one’s writing or speech with erudite references in order to seem smarter. The person engaged in this action probably thinks that his allusions to other authors are carefully contrived, but they’re more likely to be perceived as clunky and awkward – like an actual sack of books. This is also perhaps the best phrase to wrap up this listicle, lest readers be tempted to show off their knowledge of Chinese dog-shit idioms at the next cocktail party they attend.