Category Archives: folk metaphor

Chinese Enigmatic Folk Similes

Background: A friend and I were talking about the COVID-19 situation in the US. She mentioned that at late February, when COVID started to spread in the US, some people bought masks and sent them to Wuhan, China to support the medical workers there. She brought up this common saying:

Main piece: 

泥菩萨过河——自身难保

Pinyin: ni pu sa duo he——zi shen nan bao

Transliteration: A mud Bodhisattva crosses the river——She can’t even save herself.

Context: This piece of folk speech is often used to describe people who are well-intentioned to help others, but are themselves in dangerous or unstable situations. In the context of COVID, the informant means that it is kind for those people to send masks to Wuhan, but their very own lives are at stake in the US already.

Analysis: This is an example of a particular genre of folk speech in Chinese, 歇后语 (xie hou yu), which has been translated as “Chinese enigmatic folk similes” or “quiz-cracks”. Different from proverbs, an enigmatic folk simile doesn’t directly offer a conclusion or an advice. Different from riddles, an enigmatic folk simile doesn’t propose an explicit question and doesn’t have an answer. Enigmatic folk similes often contain multiple meanings. Its form is often separated into two parts. The first part succinctly tells a story, often alluding to historical or religious instances, and the second part provides a proverbial conclusion that is in line with the context created by the first part, but often with deeper connotations. In this case, the story, “a mud Bodhisattva crosses the river”, requires the audience to imagine and suppose that mud dissembles in water, and therefore a mud Bodhisattva in a river, no matter what good intention she has, might perish before she is able to help others. The deeper connotation is that regardless of good intention, one must first be responsible for themselves before considering others, or else no one is benefitted. 

For different versions of enigmatic folk similes, see 

Rohsenow, John Snowden. A Chinese-English Dictionary of Enigmatic Folk Similes (xiēhòuyǔ) = Han Ying xie hou yu ci dian. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991.

守株待兔 – Guarding the tree to wait for a rabbit

“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

Full translation: 

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. 

Context:

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. 

Thoughts

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.

井底之蛙 – The frog at the bottom of the well

“In Chinese, we have 成语 which are four word idioms that can refer to stories or just general lessons, or any bit of common wisdom”

Original script:  井底之蛙

Phonetic (Roman) script: Jǐngdǐzhīwā

Transliteration: frog at the bottom of the well

Full translation: 

The following is from a conversation with the informant, talking about the story behind the cheng yu:

EW: There’s this classic cheng yu, 井底之蛙 (jing di zhi wa), which is just this frog who lives at the bottom of the well, and it thinks that the world is the size of the well. And whenever birds come and tell it that the world is much bigger, it refuses to believe it.

MW: And what do you think of this?

EW: Well, I just think it’s kinda cool because it’s a lot deeper than just the Princess and the Frog story. Yeah. Chinese people have good sayings. 

MW: And what does it mean?

EW: Well basically it means that some people have a very narrow way of viewing the world, I guess. Like, you think that you know everything but really you’re letting your perspective and biases hold you back from understanding the truth of things.

Context:

My informant, EW, 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. This piece was collected over a phone call, when talking about Chinese traditions.

Thoughts

I like this cheng yu because it’s reminiscent of the Platonian cave theory, and in general I believe a lot of other cultures have similar ideas about the world not being what it seems and that we are only viewing a small portion of what the reality of our universe is. I think it’s interesting to see how other cultures all come up with similar ideas, and how they express them differently.

“When the tiger used to smoke” (호랑이 담배피던 시절)

Main Piece : 

“호랑이 담배피던 시절”

Original Script : 호랑이 담배피던 시절

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Horangee dambae pidun shijul

Transliteration : When the tiger used to smoke

Full Translation : Long, long time ago… 

Context :

My informant is an adult male who was born in the Gangwon Area of Korea, which is located on the East side of the peninsula. He received Korean education throughout his life and he now works in Korea. Here, he is describing a commonly used proverb that is used in the Korean society. He is identified as S in the dialogue. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English.  

S : So ‘호랑이가 담배피던 시절’ is one of the most famous opening lines of Korean folk stories. The storyteller, or whoever narrates the story would start off with this opening sentence and continue telling the first chapter of the story. It is similar to how Disney movies start with “once upon a time..”. They never identify the exact year of what’s taking place, but only hints that it is a very long time ago. 

E : Is the author for this opening line known?

S : I don’t think so. I’m not an expert on this, but because this is a very widely used opening in countless folk stories, I think it is unknown and will be hard to find who started this. I don’t think the author for “once upon a time” is known too. I’d be surprised if the author is known. 

Analysis :

I think this particular folktale opening reflects a very Korean aspect as they introduce the tiger out of all animals. Tiger has been a national animal of Korea for a very long time and a lot of the ancient folk drawings or cultures include, or is related to tigers. Tigers in Korean folklore hold a great importance and has been used in various occasions such as the Olympic mascot. Also, when we explain smoke, it doesn’t mean Western cigarettes, but it is most likely believed to be ‘곰방대(Gombangdae)’, which is a traditional smoking device of Korea made out of wood and metal. This opening lets the readers imagine a tiger, sitting in his house like a human, and smoking, using Gombangdae. The triggering of the imagination of the readers gives off a mystical feeling to open the scene. 

This article highlights how Korea used a white tiger as a mascot for their 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics and what tiger means in their culture.

Mexican saying

Main piece:

“Calladita te ves más bonita” 

Transliteration: 

Quiet you look more pretty

Full translation: 

You look prettier quiet 

Background: My informant was my mom and this proverb was something I collected while she was scolding my sister. I asked her later about the proverb (what it meant exactly even though I knew). She gave me valuable insight and mentioned that my grandma would tell my mom and aunt that as kids whenever they sounded silly attempting to defend themselves from wrongdoing. 

Context: My sister was being scolded by my mom for having a mess in her room. My mom started going off tangent and bringing more and more stuff into the argument. My sister would retaliate and call out my mom on certain things. But there was a line that my sister said that did not help her case a lot and that’s when my mom said the recorded proverb above. 

Thoughts: Sometimes I feel like my mom overuses this proverb in order to keep my sister from talking but other times it hits right. In this example it fits right because whatever my sister has said, all I know is that it didn’t help her case, was nonsense and my mom pretty much said to stop talking because she’s not helping herself. In other words, my sister would be doing herself a favor by not talking and metaphorically flopping all over the place with words.

“Iru di nma adiro nma itu mbo”-Onitsha Proverb

Context: This is a proverb that is native to my dad’s village and he learned it as a child growing up in Onitsha. Proverbs like this were a prominent means of giving advice and life lessons especially to the children of the tight-knit community.

  • “Iru di nma adiro nma itu mbo”
    • Transliterated Proverb
      • Iru: face
      • Di nma: is nice, beautiful
      • Adiro: is not
      • Nma: nice
      • Itu: to throw
      • Mbo: nail
    • Full Translation: A beautiful face is not good to be scratched, meaning do not ruin a good relationship or look for trouble where there is none.
      • Explanation: This proverb is especially important to my dad because it represents a warning against telling lies or spreading unsupported allegations about someone. My dad learned this from his own father. This expression presents a metaphorical scenario where an individual scratches[falsely accuses] a beautiful[innocent]person. It means that a person in power should not accuse someone without any valid evidence and that in doing so you are not only telling a lie about that person, but you are also ruining a possible relationship and starting unnecessary trouble.  

Thoughts: I have to agree with the premise of this proverb because I grew up in a household that always emphasized the importance of never telling lies and not starting trouble. The saying is indicative of many of the life experiences that my parents have amassed living here in the United States. My dad, in particular, suffered a lot of hardships from individuals that would take his kindness and trust for granted and would try to discredit his character. However, this proverb speaks to a profound belief that my dad possesses. He believes in the law of karma, or the idea that if you lead a good life and stand by truth as opposed to lies that your good nature will be rewarded. I grew up with the heavy rhetoric of telling the truth and I honestly believe that it is one of the reasons why I am not a good liar. This proverb really speaks a lot of truth into who I am as a person, and who my dad still is. While I still tell the occasional white lie here and there, I do my best, to tell the truth, and I hope to pass that on to everyone I interact with.

“Nwata adi ebu orika”-Onitsha Proverb

Context: This is a proverb that is native to my dad’s village and he learned it as a child growing up in Onitsha. Proverbs like this were a prominent means of giving advice and life lessons especially to the children of the tight-knit community. 

  • “Nwata adi ebu orika”
    • Transliterated Proverb
      • Nwata: child
      • Adi: does not or should not
      • Ebu: carry
      • Orika: heavy
    • Full Translation: A child should not carry the responsibility of the entire house or the responsibility of taking care of themself, meaning that parents have a responsibility to make sure that their children do not carry a burden that they cannot yet carry.
      • Explanation: My dad grew up in Nigeria and learned this proverb from his father[my grandfather]as a child. He remembers it well because it’s an important aspect of the community when he was growing up. He talked about the fact that “It takes a village”, meaning that it was important for adults in the community to support and help a child develop and grow. This is why it was stressed heavily that children must not be burdened by responsibilities that cannot carry.

Thoughts: I found this proverb to be quite compelling and that it really speaks truth to how I was raised. I am Nigerian American so I grew up hearing proverbs like this from my parents. This proverb is one that I have heard often, and I understood its meaning to be that as a child I should not try to overload myself or overextend myself. After talking with my dad about this, the meaning became more clear. While I should not overburden myself as a child, it also puts the responsibility on my parents to make sure that they handle their responsibilities and give me what I can manage. Indirectly this proverb has influenced a lot of my decisions because I always consult with my parents when I plan on taking on a new responsibility. Every decision becomes a dialogue and I always make sure that I understand now, that some things I cannot do by myself and I am grateful that my parents are around to alleviate and take on some of my burdens. 

“Onitsha ji azu awu”-Onitsha Proverb

Context: This is a proverb that is native to my dad’s village and he learned it as a child growing up in Onitsha. Proverbs like this were a prominent means of giving advice and life lessons especially to the children of the tight-knit community.

  • “Onitsha ji azu awu”
    • Transliterated Proverb
      • Onitsha: Onitsha
      • Ji: uses
      • Azu: the back
      • Awu: urine
    • Full Translation: Instead of confronting troublesome people, you avoid conflict by making an excuse to leave[i.e. use the restroom] and leave that environment through the back door.
      • Explanation: According to my dad, this is a pinnacle saying among men in the village of Onitsha, where he grew up. This saying serves to represent the ability of an Onitsha man to assess a situation and leave when it is appropriate for him to do so, avoiding conflict and maintaining his dignity and pride as a man. My dad learned the village elders of Onitsha and it stands as a saying to exercise heightened awareness in regards to the safety of your environment and or surroundings.

Thoughts: While this appears to be a proverb directed towards men within my dad’s village, I believe that this proverb can be taken as a message for both men and women.  Growing up my parents would always tell me and my brother to always be aware of our surroundings and be observant so as to prevent walking into danger. When I left for college, the premise of the saying became very real for me because I heard a lot of tragic events and or stories in regard to people finding themselves in situations that they did not understand how to escape. Now as a young adult, I exercise the message of this proverb almost every time I leave the safety of my apartment or dorm room. There have been situations where I have had disagreements or conflict with people that I know and a lot of times I always ended up leaving the situation and returning later when things have cooled down. While I agree that some situations can prompt one to leave and never return, I do believe that this caution can still be exercised by staying in a risky but manageable situation. There is always a level of conflict associated with working with others, so I think it’s important to exercise caution but also do it in a way that is solution-oriented and non-escalating. In this context I wouldn’t just leave an instance of conflict unresolved, instead, I would try to deescalate the situation and find a solution but if the situation gets out of hand then I will figure out a way to leave.

“Isi buka ora ka Okpu”-Onitsha Proverb

Context: This is a proverb that is native to my dad’s village and he learned it as a child growing up in Onitsha. Proverbs like this were a prominent means of giving advice and life lessons especially to the children of the tight-knit community. 

  • “Isi buka ora ka Okpu”
    • Transliterated Proverb
      • Isi: head
      • Buka: big
      • Ora ka: struggle
      • Okpu: cap
    • Full Translation: No matter how big a man’s head is, we can find an alternative cap, meaning that we can always find a solution or alternative to any issue or problem.
      • Explanation: This proverb comes from my dad and he learned about this when he was a child growing up in Nigeria. This was supposed to be a saying that illustrated that no matter how big a problem was that a solution could always be found. When my dad told me about this proverb, he emphasized it as a teaching rather than a saying. He experienced a lot of hardships and adversities growing up, but he always remembered the words of his father in that there was no problem that he could not solve and to keep pushing forward.

Thoughts: Growing up this was not a saying that I would hear often here from my parents, but I recognize a lot of variations in English that they would tell us. It is interesting to think about how this one proverb could summarize the experiences of my dad as a child and his journey from Nigeria to the U.S. to start a better life for himself. Life in itself is riddled with challenges, but this proverb provides a simple and almost cheesy solution. If we think of problems as being impossible and that they can never be solved, then they will continue to plague and affect us throughout our life. However, if we address a problem with possible solutions from the beginning and speak into existence that a solution is near then no problem will be too great and we’ll always find a solution. The proverb is speaking clearly on the value of being solution-orientated and I agree with this message entirely. Given my dad as an example of what happens when you choose a path of solutions rather than problems, I hope to carry on the message of this proverb and apply it to the challenges I know I will face.

“Never Let the Blood of Your Unborn Children Cry to God for Vengeance.”

Main piece:

(The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.)

Interviewer: Can you tell me some of the old stories or wives tales your mother told you?

Informant: The most gross one is about her – her mother, my grandmother, your great great grandmother told my mother about this rich lady that she took care of in Germany – she had a big ole mansion she took care of her, and I guess the lady – uhh, my grandma took care of her when she was dying. And, uhh, she kept telling her – I think her name was Marie – to go over to the closet! Because she kept hearing children crying. And uhh, so, my grandmother told my mother… to never let the blood of your unborn children to cry to god for vengeance. And she always told me. And I thought “what in the heck does THAT mean?!

Interviewer: (laughs)

Informant: I kn- I never – I mea- (laughs). What does that mean?! And then when I – I got older, and they talked about abortion, It finally, I finally put two and two together. The lady must’ve had a lot of abortions – because you know, they were wealthy, and they didn’t want kids to mess up their lifestyle, so she probably had an abortion, and then she – as she laid on her death bed, those little spirits haunted her – or she just had a guilty conscience, and she imagined that. So that’s a kind of weird icky thing.

Interviewer: Do you think that story is true? Or-

Informant: No, It’s true! It’s true. Because it was told to me by my mother, who never lied.

Interviewer: But either way it’s a story warning against abortions.

Informant: Yes.

Background: My informant was born and raised in southern Illinois to very strict Catholic parents. She has strong Irish and Italian heritage. Her mother was a devout and strict Catholic, and she has always been very religious herself, though she has never been overly strict with her children or grandchildren.

Context: The informant is my grandmother, and has always had a proclivity for telling stories, jokes, and wives tales. This piece was selected out of many from a recording of a long night of telling stories in a comfortable environment.

Thoughts: This story is not surprising coming from an “original” teller who was devoutly religious, especially nearly a century ago. The two ways in which the informant’s mother’s religion impact this story are funnily connected, though. I mean to say, I personally find it doubtful that this story was truthfully told by my great-great-grandmother, or that it happened to her. To me, it seems almost obvious that this was simply a tale to frighten young girls out of abortions because the teller was deeply religious, and that anybody could have made it up or spread it around. That is why I believe it to be folklore in the first place. But, my grandmother is nonetheless convinced that the story was true and happened to her grandmother also because of her mother’s religious nature – and feeling sure that she was not lying.