Tag Archives: Chinese history

Book: 100 Chinese Two-Part Allegorical Sayings

100 Chinese Two-Part Allegorical Sayings

Perfect material for ProVoc (free language-learning software for Mac)
196 pages, ★★★★

I’ve been studying this gorgeous little book recently.

One of the beautiful aspects of Chinese language is its allegorical sayings. Like idioms, proverbs and set phrases, allegorical sayings enrich daily Chinese conversation and make the people who use them sound more intelligent. Many of these expressions make allegorical references to religion, history, legends or folklore.

Allegorical sayings come in two parts. The first part is an allegory (such as 八仙过海, “Eight Immortals cross the ocean”) and the second part is an explanation that describes  the context you’re in (such as 各显神通, “each displays his/her own unique talents”). This particular allegory is rooted in Daoism.

Some allegorical sayings rely on homophones. For example, 打破沙锅,问到底 is a homophone of 打破沙锅,璺到底. The first part means “break the earthenware pot”. As for the second part, just by changing one character, the meaning changes from “crack it right through” to “get to the bottom of this issue”. Therefore, saying the first part, “break the earthenware pot” can be an allusion to “get to the bottom of this issue” in Chinese conversation. The Chinese adore homophones.

This book explains 100 famous allegorical sayings with explanations and illustrations.

Here are three examples from the book:

  1. 狗拿耗子 – 多管闲事
    Dog trying to catch mice—meddling in other people’s business.
  2. 秋后的蚂蚱 – 蹦跶不了几天
    Grasshopper in late autumn—nearing one’s end.
  3. 小葱拌豆腐 – 一清二白
    Plain white tofu mixed with a little spring onion—as clear as day.

ProVoc is the perfect app for learning vocabulary on a Mac.

ProVoc Screenshot
Full-screen vocabulary slideshows and full-screen vocabulary tests in ProVoc (Free)
  • Create your own vocabulary database or download another user’s vocabulary list from within the app.
  • Click ‘Play’ to view gorgeous, full-screen slideshows of your vocabulary complete with sound, images and videos.
  • Take four types of quizzes based on your vocabulary. Difficult words will automatically appear more frequently than easy ones.
  • Customize just about everything using a simple, aesthetic, high-contrast interface. Create your own quiz styles, customise the slideshow, or share your vocabulary lists for others to use.

ProVoc and this book are a perfect combination for anyone wanting to improve the quality of their spoken Chinese! ★★★★

Book: Mao’s Last Dancer

Happy Easter, everyone! 😀

At last, I have time to read and review a ‘fun’ book this week. Here goes…

Mao's Last Dancer
Mao’s Last Dancer

China’s reforms from the perspective of one Shandong family.
528 pages, ★★★★★

I chose this book because I love reading about China’s tumultuous transition from a chaotic, agrarian backwater to the economic powerhouse that it is today. Rather than reading history books, which give you a top-down perspective, novels give you the perspective of one of millions of Chinese families—like Zhang Yimou‘s To Live (film), and Jung Chang‘s Wild Swans (review coming next).

Protagonist and author Li Cunxin was raised in the 1960s in Li Commune in the outskirts of Qingdao. Despite poverty, despite not liking dancing, and despite growing up in a country with a nationalised hatred for all things extravagant and Western—especially ballet, Li Cunxin was selected for world-class ballet training at Madame Mao’s dance school in Beijing. This led to an international ballet career—and the fame, fortune and international travel that follows. All of this was unthinkable for most Chinese at the time.

China was full of contradictions under Mao’s rule (1949—1976). During the Cultural Revolution, officials issued “self-criticism” assignments to ballet students who indulged in such unnecessary extravagances as eating sweets. But why isn’t ballet itself considered extravagant and unnecessary? The “Criticise Confucius” political campaign included arguments such as, “Confucius was a feudalist whose theories described an ideal society for feudal leaders at the expense of the populace”. But during the Cultural Revolution, wasn’t the Communist Party doing exactly the same thing to its own people? Irony was everywhere, and it propelled Li Cunxin to fame.

His first trip to Houston revealed the true extent of the lies he’d been told back in China. Americans were not poor and unhappy; nor did they all carry guns; nor did they “kill coloured people”, as his family and fellow villagers back in China had warned. In America, he discovered the combination of happiness and wealth 1960s China was craving so much—and he instantly fell in love with it. He even got married, albeit hastily, to the first Western girl that he kissed.

Li Cunxin’s journey represents the journey that China took as a nation. From the 1970s onwards, China became increasingly infatuated with the west, started enjoying some political freedom (communes were dissolved), promoted cultural exchange (intermarriage is on the increase), got richer, emigrated (many Chinese with the means to emigrate have already done so) and started sending money back home (Chinese companies are investing in large western companies—sometimes purchasing them outright). It’s not just millions of Chinese who are following in Li Cunxin’s footsteps, but China as a nation-state, too.

Li Cunxin’s autobiography isn’t just about one man’s lucky journey. It instead describes the tumultuous transition to modernity that millions of people—and China itself—took in the last 60 years. Highly recommended for anyone who loves Chinese historyrags-to-riches stories, economic developmentSlumdog Millionaire, or Billy Elliot. 🙂 ★★★★★