Mandarin Idioms, Ouyang Xiu and Medieval and Modern China

I have always been fascinated by the catchy slogans used in modern Chinese history, which are always pithy, short phrasings of rather much larger historical statements – think of any one of Mao’s, like “Let a hundred flowers bloom” (百花齊放) or “Smash the Four Olds” (破四旧立四新), and you basically encapsulate the movements and habits of millions of people at a point in time. Deng Xiaoping had several of his own, including “Reform and Opening Up” (改革开放), “Eliminating Chaos and Returning to Normal” (拨乱反正), and my own favorite “Crossing the river by touching the stones” (摸着石头过河). Even modern leaders like Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin, and Xi Jinping have carried on the torch, albeit with less revolutionary fervor – the big one on everyone’s lips today is “common prosperity” (共同富裕).

This is a poster for the slogan “criticize Lin, criticize Confucius,” which was also in vogue during the Cultural Revolution.

It’s probably unsurprising to learn that many of these slogans were taken from earlier Chinese literature – China, after all, has the deepest literary history of any culture on the planet. “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” for example, comes from a poem written in the Warring States period, pre-Qin unification. What was more surprising to learn is that this sort of idiomatic expression is not just a part of political and literary thought, but a deeper linguistic feature of Mandarin, which is usually called chengyu (成语).

Chengyu are usually four-character statements, nearly always derived from ancient literature, and thus governed by the archaic, context-collapsing rules of Literary (or Classical) Chinese. What this means is that modern syntactical rules, which are already less stringent in Mandarin than in familiar western languages (don’t have to modify verbs for tense or number, no declining nouns in cases, etc.), don’t apply and instead meaning is often metaphorically (and creatively) constructed.

This chengyu is “playing the zither for an ox”. Source

Examples: the old man lost his horse (塞翁失馬), a saying taken from a parable written in the 2nd century BC Huainanzi. It basically means “there’s a silver lining to everything,” since the remainder of the story talks about how losing his horse ended up benefiting the old man down the road. “Break the cauldrons and sink the boats” (破釜沉舟) refers to a story from the 3rd century BC, during the Chu-Han Contention. A general broke his cauldrons and sunk his boats after crossing enemy territory, and ended up winning his battles as a result of going all in – compare it to something like “crossing the Rubicon” or even that story of Hernan Cortes burning his boats before venturing into Aztec territory.

So far, I’ll admit that there’s a lot of similarity to the way we handle idioms in English. After all, “crossing the Rubicon” refers to an event that took place 2000 years ago as well. But the key thing here is in the consistency of the format – almost always four characters and taken from ancient literature.

Besides, there’s a lot of cultural untranslatability at work in other examples – take the phrase “adding feet when drawing a snake” (畫蛇添足), which comes from the Warring States period as well, and means to do something unnecessarily. Or try the obscure “under a plum tree or in a melon patch” (瓜田李下), which dates to the Han Dynasty and derives from a longer line: “Don’t adjust your shoes in a melon field and don’t tidy your hat under the plum trees.” If that expansion doesn’t make it immediately clear, the meaning is basically to avoid situations where you might be perceived as suspicious.

One out-of-bounds example of a nice idiom is a seven character chengyu, “the Old Drunkard’s attention is not directed towards his wine” (醉翁之意不在酒). This again is an excerpt from a longer line, and exhorts one to watch out in case someone may have an ulterior motive. Its author was the Song Dynasty polymath Ouyang Xiu, during the consultation of whose lengthy Wikipedia page I became mighty curious, and sought out more info.

A contemporary painting done of Ouyang.

My copy of FW Mote‘s murder-weapon-weighty Imperial China: 900-1800 has a lot to say on Ouyang. “He led significant developments in every aspect of that transformation [of Song civilization] – the political, philosophical, literary, and scholarly activities that made the Song dynasty a new age in Chinese history…Ouyang Xiu was the ‘universal man’ of his time and one of the small number of such figures in all of Chinese history,” Mote writes.

Ouyang made his way up the civil examination ladder and, as a young official in Luoyang, became an important figure in the literary cultural scene. He won fame for his mainstream lyric poetry, but was energized by new stylistic approaches, including the revival of the ancient prose essay form. As Mote writes, “…at this period of Chinese history, intellectual life came to bear even more directly on political careers and on policy than had ever been the case,” and indeed Ouyang’s literary cultural cachet propelled him in 1034 to the Imperial Academy at Kaifeng, the Song capital, after which he embarked on a long career of public service and works. He was associated with important, AP World-type events like the Qingli Reforms and the Major Reforms, and emperors like Renzong knew his name.

A painting made nearly contemporary to Ouyang’s life, Zhang Zeduan’s Along the River During the Qingming Festival depicts imperial Kaifeng at the height of Song power.

Among Ouyang’s most important efforts was his history writing – he took on posts as an imperial Academician, which gave him access to the deep archives of the Chinese state, and helped to write two of the Twenty-Four Histories which served as the definitive imperial history from 91 BC to 1911 AD. In fact, a Princeton-trained Sinologist, now at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, published in 2002 an abridged English translation of Ouyang’s Historical Records of the Five Dynasties, available here.

It’s wonky to read, full of references to places and emperors any Westerner will quickly feel out of his depth in, but it is sort of delightful to be able to reach back a millennium ago to read the historical thoughts of a figure so influential in Chinese events in his own right. The uncanny thing about pre-modern China is its essential modernity – at a time before the Normans had invaded Britain, Ouyang was hard at work developing double-blind scoring procedures for the civil service exams, for which he was briefly commissioner.

Institutions like the civil exams made Song society rather fluid, especially for its best and brightest, and upon appointment to ministerial roles, one’s career progression seems rather legible to me as a modern today – you moved to a small city and helped run it, got involved in larger projects and dealt with corporate(ish) politics, you moved up to larger cities or the capital as your career thrived. We have records of political scandals involving ministers partying too hard in seedy quarters, or being accused in sex scandals – it’s far easier to understand lives like this than the rote drudgery of peasant (or even rich urban) life in Europe at the same time, which seems to mostly have been quiet punctuated by brief times of war or plague. All in all a good lesson in the deep humanity of history.

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