Chengyu (usually four character Chinese idioms) are one of the most fascinating parts of learning Chinese. By learning the story that explains the idiom, you learn language, culture, and history all at the same time. Here are a few interesting chengyu regarding perspective.
To Play Music for a Cow
Duì niú tán qín
Literally, “towards cow play musical instrument,” this amusing chengyu is used in conversation to mean, to speak to deaf (or unlearned) ears. It is very similar to the English phrase “to cast pearls before swine,” where pearls denote nuggets of wisdom and swine indicate uncouth individuals. In both cases something that is very refined and indicative of high culture is given to barnyard beasts.
The story that accompanies this chengyu is about a musician named Gong Mingyi. Gong Mingyi was a master of the Zheng. The 古箏Guzheng or simply Zheng is a Chinese zither, a stringed instrument that is plucked to produce beautiful music. Gong Mingyi was a very accomplished musician, a master of his art form who could always coax amazing melodious music from his instrument.
He loved to play his music. The music he made with his Zheng stirred his emotions. Gong Mingyi assumed that everyone who heard this same music would respond in the same way.
One day he saw a cow in a field. Gong Mingyi was inspired by the scene and ran out into the field to play. It wasn’t long before he was lost in the music, overcome with emotion. But when he came out of his revery he noticed that the cow paid no attention at all to him.
Even the most amazing music, or most profound wisdom, will fail to move those who do not understand.
The Frog Who Lived at the Bottom of the Well
Jĭng dĭ zhī wā
Literally, it means “well bottom frog.” One will definitely need to hear the story to understand what this chengyu means.
The story goes that, in ancient times, there was a frog (青蛙, qīng wā, in the chengyu denoted by simply wā). This frog lived at the bottom of a well. The frog was very happy there. The frog had everything he wanted out of life: water to splash in, food to eat, and light from above. His world was very small, but he was very content. He thought himself ruler of his land.
He continued living happily for a long time, until one day along came a turtle. The turtle sat at the top of the well and began to talk to the frog.
The frog began to tell of his happy life and how rays of light shone down on him. He told of how delightful the water was and invited the turtle down into the well. The turtle tried to join the happy frog, but the opening of the well was too small.
He invited the frog to come out instead and come to the sea with him. But the frog did not want to leave his kingdom.
The frog couldn’t see past his beautiful but small world. The turtle, however, knew the vast beautiful ocean, and thought upon how limited the frog’s view was.
Today jĭng dĭ zhī wā is used to describe someone who cannot see the big picture, and especially if they are very complacent about change and the solution seems very simple to another person.
Beat the Grass and Alert the Snake
Dă căo jīng shé
Literally, meaning “hit grass startle snake” this chengyu has a very fascinating story.
In ancient times there was a city magistrate, Wang Lu, who was well known, but not for his good deeds. He was known to take extra gifts for special consideration and for playing favorites when deciding legal matters. His secretary did many of the same things.
One day a petition came across the magistrate’s desk accusing his secretary of unjust behavior.
The magistrate was so shocked that all he wrote on the petition was 打草惊蛇, dă căo jīng shé, you have hit the grass and startled the snake.
That day Wang Lu began to consider his ways.
This phrase is now used to mean giving away something prematurely, such as alerting someone too soon that you are on to them or giving a game away.