Monday, February 23, 2009

Clinton Throwing Around Chinese Idioms

During her trip to China this week, Hillary Clinton took on the daunting task of using four character Chinese idioms.

From McClatchy Newspapers:

Here's a lesson on when to use Chinese proverbs and who to use them with.

Short answer: It's probably best for Westerners not to try to out-proverb the Chinese, especially when speaking with Premier Wen Jiabao.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has just passed through China, and she displayed a propensity to throw Chinese proverbs into her public statements, exclaiming at one point: "I love Chinese proverbs!"

She tossed out her first Chinese proverb before even departing on her weeklong trip, and in some ways it was apt.

In a speech on U.S.-China relations to the Asia Society on Feb. 13 in New York, Clinton used the aphorism "tongchuan gongji," which means roughly "when on a common boat, cross the river peacefully together." The proverb was made famous in "The Art of War," the book by the ancient philosopher and military strategist Sun Tzu. Most listeners probably got the gist of what Clinton was seeking to say: The United States and China have common problems and should work together.

Like most Chinese proverbs, this one contains four characters (and four syllables) but is loaded with historical and literal meaning.

Read On
The article goes on to show that while Clinton was making her points with the idioms, the phrases she used usually had double entendres which didn't help her case or was immediately out-proverbed by Premier Wen.

Studying four character Chinese idioms is something I have a bit of experience with. Using Chinese idioms is a very important step in learning Chinese. One's proficiency in Chinese is directly linked with one's ability to use idioms.

Here is a nice write-up on Chinese idioms from
Four-character idioms, or chéngyǔ (Traditional Chinese: 成語; Simplified Chinese: 成语, literally "to become (part of) the language") are widely used in Classical Chinese, a literary form used in the Chinese written language from antiquity until 1919, and are still commonly used in Vernacular writing today. Classical Chinese can be compared to the way Latin was used in the Western world in science until recently. According to the most stringent definition, there are about 5,000 chengyu in Chinese, though some dictionaries list over 20,000.

Chengyu are mostly derived from ancient literature. The meaning of a chengyu usually surpasses the sum of the meanings carried by the four characters, as chengyu are often intimately linked with the myth, story or historical fact from which they were derived. As such, chengyu do not follow the usual grammatical structure and syntax of the modern Chinese spoken language, and are instead highly compact and synthetic.

Chengyu in isolation are often unintelligible to modern Chinese, and when students in China learn chengyu in school as part of the Classical curriculum, they also need to study the context from which the chengyu was born. Often the four characters reflect the moral behind the story rather than the story itself. For example, the phrase "破釜沉舟" (pinyin: pò fǔ chén zhōu) literally means "break the woks and sink the boats." It was based on a historical account where General Xiang Yu ordered his troop to destroy all cooking utensils and boats after crossing a river into the enemy's territory. He won the battle because of this "no-retreat" policy. The phrase is used when one succeeds by burning the bridge. This particular idiom cannot be used in a losing scenario because the story behind it does not describe a failure.

Read On
When it comes to using idioms, my lack of proficiency in Chinese really shows. I can maybe use about ten in daily conversation. Off the top of my head, here are a few of the ones I could come up with:

入乡随俗 - (ru xiang sui su) - "When in Rome, do as the Romans." - The word "Rome" is not in this idiom. Literally, the idiom reads something like, "When entering a village, follow their customs."

- 重色轻友 - (zhong se qing you) - "Lover is more important than friends." - I suppose this is the exact opposite of the English idiom, "Bros before hos."

- 张三李四 - (zhang san li si) - "Any Tom, Dick, or Harry" - This idiom is funny to me. Literally it reads, "Zhang three, Li four." The idea behind this idiom is that Zhang and Li are probably the two most popular sur names is China.

- 马马虎虎 - (ma ma hu hu) - "Alright" or "OK" - The literal translation of this one is pretty awesome - "horse horse tiger tiger." This one is really easy to use in daily conversation.

- 人山人海 - (ren shan ren hai) - "A large crowd" - This one literally reads "People mountain, people sea." An interesting way to say, "China is way too crowded."

- 人生如寄 - (ren sheng ru ji) - "Life is short" - I don't really understand the logic behind how these characters mean this statement. Just have memorized it.

- 无处可去 - (wu chu ke qu) - "No place to go" - I like how this one sounds. The phrase is very logical to me too.

I'm near certain that my Chinese will never get to the point where I'll actually be able to throw around Chinese idioms with any sort of regularity or skill. The ability to use idioms really is vital to being a Chinese speaker. I'm not going to get too caught up in the difficulty of using Chinese idioms though, I'll still be able to make strides in Chinese. Just won't ever be the next Da Shan or anything.

Other than Clinton's attempted usage of Chinese idioms, I vaguely kept up with her trip to China. It sounds as if the confident and rather blunt Clinton accomplished what she went to China to do. Pragmatism and keeping China on board with funding the United States' ever-increasing debt and spending certainly was the focus.


Anonymous said...

Idioms are so hard. I bought a huge hardcover dictionary of idoms, but have not the time to study. There are so many other life stuff that gets in the way. Certainly if you want an intellectual challenge, cramming idioms into your brain would prolong Alzheimers.

Anonymous said...

Great list! Thanks for providing it.

I'm with you in that I doubt I will ever get to the point of being able to throw these around in my own communication, but it is a good thing to be able to hear these idioms and understand what is being said instead of being left in the dark.

Anonymous said...

I'm hardly well-enough into my studies to be authoritative, but my impression was that although "马马虎虎" does mean OK or alright in a sense, it's got more of a pejorative connotation than those words convey in English.

For example, "OK" and "so-so" both have a similar sense of acceptability, but a native speaker of English would only use the latter if they wanted to convey that something was barely sufficient rather than welcomed. (Am I correct in this?)

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Forest said...

One that my grandma uses all the time is 人走茶凉,which literally means "People leave, the tea gets cold." It's used to describe people who are warm and friendly when they are around, but forget about you as soon as they leave.

Remembering chinese idioms isn't a matter of studying a dictionary. I think if you can get into conversation with people, you'll pick them up naturally. They wouldn't be popular if they weren't more-than-easy to remember in context.

Anonymous said...

You're missing the context for 重色轻友. It doesn't really support "love is more important than friends." Actually, it is meant as an insult for someone who places greater (重 meaning heavy/like greater in weight) value in lust than friends. Like when you friend ditches you for a date, you throw back "重色轻友!" So in effect, it works like "Bros before hos."