Tag Archives: chinese folk proverb

“Even cold water will get in your teeth” (喝凉水也塞牙)

Original Script : 喝凉水也塞牙

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Hē liángshuǐ yě sāi yá

Transliteration : Even cold water will get in your teeth

Full Translation : If you are meant to be unlucky, you will be unlucky no matter what you do

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Denver, Colorado. His family moved to the United States before he was born from mainland China. Even though his first language was technically English, as his family used Chinese at home, he grew as a bilingual student. Here, he is describing a proverb that his grandparents and parents taught him when he was young. He told me that since he couldn’t remember in detail and had to ask his parents again, a lot of the dialogue is summarized. He is identified as Z in the dialogue and this piece was collected over a phone call.

Z : What does it even mean by ‘water getting in my teeth’? It’s something that is not possible because water is a liquid without any smell or taste. This proverb thus means that if you are unlucky, you will be unlucky no matter what you do. If you are trying to drink water and you’re meant to be unlucky, a water will get between your teeth and you will be annoyed by it. 

Analysis :

This short proverb and its explanation added a humor factor in it. Rather than explaining it with other food or drink items, the proverb talks about water ‘getting in one’s teeth’, which is something no one has ever and will ever experience before. This reminded me of the Korean version of this proverb, “an unlucky man will break their nose even if they fall backwards (재수 없는 놈은 뒤로 자빠져도 코가 깨진다)”. In this Korean version of the proverb, it also talks about an impossible combination of happenings; first, one falls backwards and is expected to hurt his backside of his head but second, he ends up breaking his nose, which is located on the front side of their head. This also indicates how unlucky events seem inevitable and unavoidable because it is destined to be so for people. 

“Finding a needle in the sea” (大海捞针)

Original Script : 大海捞针

Phonetic (Roman) Script : dà hǎi lāo zhēn

Transliteration : Finding a needle in the sea

Full Translation : It is as hard as finding a needle in the sea

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Denver, Colorado. His family moved to the United States before he was born from mainland China. Even though his first language was technically English, as his family used Chinese at home, he grew as a bilingual student. Here, he is describing an idiom that his grandparents and parents taught him when he was young. He is identified as Z in the dialogue and this piece was collected over a phone call. 

Z : Haha, I think I don’t even need to explain this because the idiom speaks for itself. Finding a needle in the middle of the vast sea is not even close to being possible – it’s impossible. This idiom is used when expressing a situation that is not possible in any way.

Analysis :

This is a very common idiom used in Asian countries, and I believe it is used in other cultures too in different oikotypes. In Korea, there are two versions to this idiom. One is ‘finding a needle in the beach’, which is very similar to the Chinese idiom by my informant. I thought it was very interesting how they both are related to the sea and also how it implies the fact that sea is still not studied enough and no one knows what is down in the deep sea. The other one is ‘finding Mr. Kim in Seoul’, which adds a Korean aspect to it. Kim is one of the most common last names in Korean and Seoul is the capital of South Korea and is well known for its crowdedness since all people gather in Seoul. This Korean version shows that it is impossible to find the ‘Mr. Kim’ one is looking for in the overcrowded city. 

“Do not rest under a bad three and do not drink bad water” (恶木盗泉)

Original Script : 恶木盗泉

Phonetic (Roman) Script : È mù dào quán

Transliteration : Do Not Rest Under a Bad Tree and Do Not Drink Bad Water

Full Translation : Do not do anything bad that you will be shameful in the future regardless of the situation you are in

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Denver, Colorado. His family moved to the United States before he was born from mainland China. Even though his first language was technically English, as his family used Chinese at home, he grew as a bilingual student. Here, he is describing an idiom that his grandparents and parents taught him when he was young. He is identified as Z in the dialogue and this piece was collected over a phone call. 

Z : The idiom “do not rest under a bad tree and do not drink bad water” means that you must not do anything that you would be shameful of in the future no matter what situation you are in. You might be in a very tired state and want to rest and drink lots of water for recovery but resting under a bad tree and drinking bad water will influence you in a negative way and you will regret your rash decisions later on. 

Analysis :

This idiom indicates not only that people shouldn’t do anything that will embarrass them later on but also the fact that when a person is tired and desperate, their sense of what is right and wrong might be distorted too. This idiom tells the people that even in those hard times, one must not lose their consciousness and know how to make right choices to prevent the aftermath. 

“3 Cobblers are better than Zhuge Liang” (三臭皮匠葛亮)

Original Script : 三臭皮匠葛亮

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Sān chòu píjiàng gé liàng

Transliteration : 3 Cobblers Are Better Than Zhuge Liang

Full Translation : Two heads are better than one 

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Denver, Colorado. His family moved to the United States before he was born from mainland China. Even though his first language was technically English, as his family used Chinese at home, he grew as a bilingual student. Here, he is describing a proverb that his grandparents and parents taught him when he was young. He told me that since he couldn’t remember in detail and had to ask his parents again, a lot of the dialogue is summarized. This piece was collected over a phone call. 

The informant started off with who Zhuge Liang is; Zhuge Liang is a very well known Chinese politician and a military strategist that is known for its excellent strategic skills that have led past China to victory in multiple battles. The informant implied how he is the symbol of intelligence and often admired and looked up by people. However, cobblers are jobs that are not always favored and are less significant when compared to a nationally-known military strategist. However, this quote is meant to show how 3 less-significant people can beat Zhuge Liang, who is an individual. 

Analysis :

Zhuge Liang is an admired figure in Chinese society for its intelligence and military strategy. On the other hand, cobblers are considered as an ignorant people when compared to Zhuge Liang. In this proverb, it is implied that no matter how ignorant cobblers are in comparison to Zhuge Liang, when three cobbers come together and think as a whole, Zhuge Liang, he himself as an individual cannot win the cobblers. This shows that more than one person is always better than an individual regardless of their intelligence and educational levels. The comparison to Zhuge Liang also shows how Chinese people admire Zhuge Liang as a smart intelligent person. 

I wanted to add the Korean version of this proverb: “It is better to hold a single piece of white paper together with someone rather than yourself (백지장도 맞들면 낫다)”. While a piece of paper is very light and everyone can simply carry it without any hardships, it is always better to hold it with someone. This can be translated into no matter whether an issue might be easy to handle, it is always better to do it with someone.