Tag Archives: expression

Ren Shan Ren Hai

AW is a 19 year old college student. She is an undergraduate computer science major and is from Los Angeles County. She is Chinese American and has lived in LA all of her life.

Context: AW is a good friend of mine, so we sat down after dinner to discuss folklore she picked up across her life.


AW: There is one saying that my parents say all the time. It goes:


Translation: Ren Shan Ren Hai

English Translation: People mountain people see

Literal Translation: There are so many people here.

AW: The words don’t make sense but when you say it it just means, “woah there is a crap ton of people here”. It can vary from place to place though, like how in the US there are phrases for heavy rain and such.

Collector: Is that a phrase you use personally?

AW: Only when I’m speaking Mandarin and am with my parents and family friends.

Thoughts/Analysis: This idiom is a form of folk speech that Chinese people use to reference large crowds. It is similar to “long time no see”. It shows how folklore is directly linked to language in which the structure is similar. It also shows how language is used to connect folklore in different countries like how language is used to link India and Europe. I typically do not notice how people in America use expressions with the same structure and did not realize it was a universal thing because language changes sentence structure. I have found however that it is universal that many expressions use the natural environment as an idiom or use an idiom to express the natural environment (like rain).

For other variations of Chinese Idioms regarding mountains or seas, see:

Rapatan, N. (2013, May 14). Yu gong yi shan idiom. USC Digital Folklore Archives. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from http://folklore.usc.edu/yu-gong-yi-shan-idiom/

Pretty Is as Pretty Does


The informant – AS – is my mother, and is a 55-year-old woman, born and raised in New Britain Connecticut, currently living in South Florida. I asked her if she had any folklore to share, and she told me about a proverb that her blind mother used to say to her.




AS: One of the things my mother always used to say to me: “Pretty is as pretty does.” Pretty is as pretty does. And basically what it means is, you can be as good looking as you want, but if you don’t act right, then you’re not pretty. So it’s about looking as good on the inside as you look on the outside. But, she used to say it in a mean way. Like if I did anything that she didn’t like or something, then she would pull that out.



This seems to be classic variation on “as beautiful on the inside as on the outside,” but reworked into a more scolding fashion. It is also somewhat amusing, since the informant’s mother was blind, the proverb/saying might have some more significance, since it involves physical appearance versus behavior.


  1. The main piece: Kathak

“Um… Kathak is a classical North Indian dance form. It’s like… thousands of years old or something like that. And it’s pretty much… it has to do w like storytelling and like… kinda like describing the tales of India and Pakistan and stuff. Um, so, there’s a lot about the sounds that your feet make. Like the sounds your toes, or the soles of your feet make. You kind of stomp a lot. Most of it is like one rhythm, but you change the speeds and you change your hands to portray a story. Like going super fast is like building up tension, like the snakes are about to eat you. Slow is like, you know, nicely walking through a field of flowers, so nice and pleasant. Yeah, that’s literally it.”

  1. Background information about the performance from the informant: why do they know or like this piece? Where/who did they learn it from? What does it mean to them? Context of the performance?

“When we finally stopped moving around and settled in Porter Ranch, we didn’t really know anyone. My parents didn’t have any Pakistani or Gujarati friends nearby, and, well, I literally knew nothing about my culture. So they signed me up for kathak classes, which really hurt your feet by the way, and that’s where I met a bunch of my really close family friends and my best friend.”

  1. Finally, your thoughts about the piece

This piece shows the importance that dance has as an artform in folklore. Dance combines the retelling of folk narratives, in this case legends and myths of Hindu gods and Pakistani heroes, with an aesthetically pleasing and dynamic medium of expression. It is different from normal storytelling because it is entirely nonverbal, yet it aims to recapture the emotions and visual aspects of folk narratives, making them more real to all of the community members watching.

  1. Informant Details

The informant is an 18 year old Indian and Pakistani American female who grew up in the United States, but moved a lot as a child. While she didn’t feel close to her parents, she met her childhood best friends through local Pakistani and Indian cultural lessons such as dance classes and singing lessons, and prizes her memories of those classes.

“Between A Rock and A Hard Place” (Annotation)

My informant said he has heard his parents say this expression ever since he was little; however, he did not understand the meaning behind it until he was “probably a teenager.”  He says it refers to “being in a tough spot,” or getting caught in a predicament where either of the two outcomes are unfavorable.  The expression “between a rock and a hard place” presents a visual to this dilemma.  He also mentioned a synonymous expression: “picking the lesser of two evils.”

In 2004, Aron Ralston used this phrase for the title of his autobiography, which retells his experience while “canyoning” in the Utah desert.  For Ralston, “between a rock and a hard place” sums up the predicament he found himself in after a boulder trapped his arm.  While hiking deep into the Utah desert, away from regularly used trails, Ralston suddenly fell into a ravine and a boulder crushed his arm.  He was forced between two options: amputate his arm himself or die from thirst or starvation.  After being stuck in the ravine for over five days, he finally decided to cut his arm with a dull knife.  Therefore, “between a rock and a hard place” is a play on words and quite literal interpretation of what happened to him.  Ralston’s book also influenced the 2010 movie adaptation 127 Hours, starring James Franco.  The popularity of the movie brought even more fame to Aron Ralston’s book and continued to circulate the American saying.

127 Hours. Dir. Danny Boyle. Perf. James Franco. Fox Searchlight, 2010.
Ralston, Aron. Between a Rock and a Hard Place. New York: Atria, 2004. Print.


To Get Within a Gnat’s Eyelash [of something]

My informant works part-time for a small-sized consulting firm, and takes a lot of readings and data measurements as part of his job.  He hears this metaphor frequently when being assigned to do these readings, especially when he wants the data to be as accurate as possible.  He also uses this metaphor when critiquing the work of interns.  For the success of the consulting firm, it is important that data is read as accurately and precisely as possible.  My informant explained that if two consulting firms are competing for a contract, and one company’s readings are taken in tenth of units, and the second company’s readings are taken in hundredths of units, the second company will likely get the contract because of their attention to accuracy.

Although he’s heard and used the metaphor many times, my informant cannot remember where he first heard it.  He interprets the metaphor to be used as an indication of something of very small size, and that this logical reasoning is likely what has popularized this metaphor.  If a gnat is small and an eyelash is small, then a gnat’s eyelash must be very tiny.  He also knows he has heard the phrase used in two ways: 1) with ‘within’ to indicate a small margin of error, and 2) with ‘as small as’ to describe how miniature something appears.

I have also heard this metaphor with respect to taking and recording data, and I believe it’s commonly used as a clever way of saying something commonplace in dull mathematical fields.