Nationality: United States
Residence: Chicago, IL
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/29/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Chinese
“In Chinese, we have 成语, “cheng yu,” which are four word idioms that can refer to stories or just general lessons, or any bit of common wisdom”
Original script: 守株待兔
Phonetic (Roman) script: Shǒuzhūdàitù
Transliteration: guard tree wait rabbit
The following is from a conversation with the informant, talking about the story behind the cheng yu:
EW: Okay so the story of this is that one day, there was like this wood-cutter guy and he saw a rabbit in the forest. He saw the rabbit run into a tree stump and it like, died immediately. And so he took it home and ate it and he was like, really happy. So he was like, oh if I just wait by this tree stump another one will come and kill itself, so I never need to hunt anymore! And then, he like, died of hunger.
MW: So then what does it mean?
EW: It means that like, basically if something good happens and then you get lazy, you’ll…die of hunger, I guess! It’s basically a way of saying, “don’t be lazy” or don’t think that good things will always happen the same way.
My informant was born in America but her parents are from China, and she herself lived in China for a year. She learned it from her mom, who she still speaks Chinese at home with. Her mom would tell her this story when she was being lazy, and she enjoys this story because it reminds her of her time in China and just generally makes her feel connected to Chinese culture. Especially given that she lives in America now, she notes, staying connected to chinese culture is important.
I think the idea of good things not always happening in the same way is really interesting. It’s interesting because it’s of course an idea that we have in western culture, but no one ever really puts it into words like this, and I think that’s the beauty of the Chinese cheng yu. They are full of concepts that we don’t have words for in the West, yet still perfectly encompass these nebulous ideas.