No ivory is there in a dog’s mouth


My informant LWQ is a 47 years old Chinese artist. She was born and lived in southern part of China, especially Nanjing for many years before she moved to the north, Beijing at age 36.

The conversation is in Chinese.


Main piece:

Original script: “狗嘴里吐不出象牙。”

Phonic script: “gǒu zuǐlǐ tǔ bù chū xiàng yá.”

Transliteration: “No ivory is there in a dog’s mouth.”

Full translation: “A filthy mouth cannot utter decent language.”

Analysis on the script: Dog is a representation of badness, or vulgarity, while ivory symbolizes objects that are valuable and precious. This idiom is used to describe a person’s speech in sarcasm, that the words from this person are all truthless hogwash.


Context of the performance:

My informant LWQ was joking about a conversation between her and her husband. In a jocular manner, she described her husband’s words using this idiom, to express a disagree attitude in her husband’s words.


My thoughts about the piece:

It is very interesting that there are so many idioms, proverbs in Chinese about dogs, and without any exception, dogs carries negative meanings in all those folk pieces. In general, dogs represent inferiority, humbleness, degradation, and manifests people who are inferior in morality and status. However, at the same time, though folk pieces about dogs are all negative, they are used in a jocular manner, always being performed in joking, or playful satire. Moreover, I remember by grandmother always call me “狗东西” (phonic script: “gǒu dōng xī”, transliteration: “Dog thing”, translation: “doggie”) where dog is used in a term of endearment. It seems that there’s an ambiguous attitude toward dog among Chinese people.