Author Archives: CharmaineOng


Jing di zhi wa, bu zhi tian gao di hou

Well bottom’s frog, no know sky high earth thick

The frog at the bottom of the well, has no comprehension of the vastness of the world.

My informant learned this particular proverb in the 1960’s. During this time, my informant was a ten year old child growing up in the village of Putian, in the Fujian county in Mainland China. He was taught this as a child while in school, and their teacher told this to their entire class. This proverb means that those that grow comfortable and cocky with their little place on Earth really shouldn’t because there are so many things that they do not know out there.

As with most Chinese proverbs, there is a story that goes with it. However, my informant could not recall most of it off the top of his head other than the fact that it involved a frog living in a well talking to a sea turtle that was looking down the well at it.

In Chinese culture, animals often embody values or have values that are normally associated with them. My informant did not elaborate on the qualities of the frog, but sea turtles and turtles in general, are held in much esteem by the ancient Chinese.  The sea turtle in particular embodies wisdom, patience and longevity. All of which are qualities that the Chinese prize.  Therefore, from this, we can assume that the frog is supposed to embody bluster and ignorance. This proverb then, not only implies the limited nature of human knowledge but also the fact that that is nothing to be proud about.

守株待兔, 不劳而获

Shou zhu dai tu, bu lao er huo

Protect tree wait rabbit, no work and gain

Don’t wait for the rabbit to dash its head against a tree, to gain without work

This was first learnt by my informant when he was a young boy in Putian, a small village in the province of Fujian. He assumes that this is to teach children that there are no rewards without hard work as the likely hood of a rabbit dashing its head against a tree is very small. This discourages laziness in the hopes that the child would work hard and accomplish great things in the future.

In fact, according to my informant, there was a back story involved with this proverb as well. While he did not tell me the whole story, the gist of it was that a farmer was out one day looking for food, when suddenly, a rabbit ran into the tree in front of him and died. The farmer was so happy to have food that night that he kept venturing out to the same tree in the hope that another rabbit would perform the same feat. Day after day, the farmer kept going out and the rabbit never came. Eventually, this happy tale ends with the farmer starving to death.

In the past, much of the Chinese economy was agricultural based, and even now, most of China is very dependent on farming and fishing. To many of them, to follow a blind hope such as this, instead of cultivating the crops that they had at home is just foolishness. The Chinese also prize hard work and just rewards a lot more than luck. For example, from the Tang dynasty onward, hardworking scholars could become court officials if they did well at the examinations in the capital. Therefore, it can be inferred that this proverb was to encourage young children that there are no rewards in slacking and the results of laziness can often be dire.

Annotation: 24 April 2007

泥菩萨过江, 自身难保

Ni pu sa guo jiang, zi shen nan bao

Mud [Buddha] cross river,  self body hard protect

 When the mud Buddha crosses the river, it can’t protect itself.

My informant learnt this during her middle school years in Singapore. As every proverb has a lesson behind it, this proverb was to teach children not to try and help people while themselves are drowning because they’ll only make matters worse.

This is an example of how religious symbols integrate themselves into the culture of the Chinese. While China is a very diverse country, in contexts of food, religion and language, there is still a mainstream culture that is still prevalent and relevant to most Chinese.

Most Chinese follow the Buddhist tradition and that tradition preaches being helpful and charitable to the poor and those less fortunate than you are. However, no matter how helpful the ’Buddha’ is attempting to be, a statue made out of mud tries to go through a river, it’ll only manage to self destruct. This brings the other part of the proverb into light, as even something like if Buddha cannot protect itself, it should not try and help other people.




yi ge ri ben ren

One Japanese Man


zhan zai men kou

Standing at the doorway


na zhe yi ba dao

Holding a knife


sha le si ge ren

He kills four people


This was learned by my informant when she was growing up in Singapore in school, when she was about ten or eleven years of age. While she can’t quite recall who she learnt it from, she said it was rather useful for learning characters in Chinese.  It is in essence a word riddle, in which the bottom four lines would be told to the other person and the other person would try to guess what the word was.

Even though there is supposedly nothing meant by the content (morbid as it is), it is just there because it fits the word. However, when my informant was growing up during the 1950s and 60s in Singapore there was a great deal of resentment against the Japanese for WWII. The words of this riddle could originate as a subtle form of anti-Japanese rebellion or statement for the brutal acts that they performed in Singapore and most of South East and East Asia.

During World War II, it was very common for Japanese soldiers to enter houses indiscriminately and slaughter whole families for numerous trumped up charges, like being Chinese, or having a wife that the soldier found mildly attractive or even looking at them wrong. Therefore this might be a reflection of not only this anti-Japanese sentiment but also oppositional culture.

How Red Hill (Bukit Merah) Got its Name

A long time ago, in the annals of Malayan history, when Singapore was merely a little sleepy fishing village, there was a bloody event that stained the soil of the (present day) Red Hill red with blood. In these early years, fish that had sharp, sword like mouths used to swim up to the shore and attack fishermen, making it unable for them to venture out and fish. Nobody had any idea what to do, the Sultan tried ordering soldiers to attack, but these attempts only made attacks more frequent and causing the soldiers themselves more harm than the fish.

Then one day, a young boy,  who lived on the hill came up with a solution. He advised the Sultan to use banana tree trunks as a wall to ward off the attacks, as the fishes mouth would get stuck in the tree and they can kill the fish more easily.  This plan worked very well, and the fish eventually stopped attacking.

However, the boy became a hero in the eyes of the villages and the Sultan became threatened by him, growing paranoid that the villagers might want this young boy to become the next ruler and overthrow him. His paranoia increased day by day, until one day, he ordered a small squad of his elite guards to assassinate the boy in his sleep. That night, the head of the this team took out his kris (wavy blade dagger) and stabbed the boy in the heart. Killing him instantly.

The blood that flowed out would not stop gushing out of the wound, this scared the soldiers and they ran away as fast as possible. This young boy’s blood coated the hill that he lived. None of the villagers knew who ordered the boy kill, but that it was a tragic event, and to commemorate this event, they called the hill Bukit Merah (Red Hill) to remember this boy by.

My informant was informed of this legend when he was a boy in Singapore during the 1990s. This was told to him by one of his older cousins at a family reunion, when they were watching a TV special on the origin of place names in Singapore. He suspected it was partially to scare the living daylights out of him, but nevertheless, it stuck. Because of the story though, he went to look up the actual reason what made the soil on that hill red, and it was because of the soil type on that hill tended to have a reddish hue to it.

Fishermen in rural villages are not the most rational or scientific of people, and the most likely reason for the name would be that as the soil, without any plants or crops growing on it would look like blood soaked soil to these uneducated villagers in the early part of the last millennium. Therefore naming the place, Red Hill or Bukit Merah.

There are many versions of this story. In some versions, like this one, the species of fish attacking the village is unknown, others name it as swordfish and some call it Gar fish. In another version of this story, the boy does not die and it the blood coming out was the blood of the earth from a homunculus which, a witch created to throw off the guards from actually killing the boy.