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:
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.