Chinese Corner

If Elephants Could Fly2 min read

Illuminating Cantonese idioms – Rosalyn Shih

In February 2014, Hong Kong cartoonist Ah Toh (阿塗) published a Cantonese comic through the independent magazine Passion Times that became an instant viral hit. Based on the 16th-century Flemish painting Netherlandish Proverbs, Ah Toh’s version includes illustrations of 81 Cantonese idioms.

The cartoon shows just how colorful Hong Kong and southern Chinese idioms (jin6 jyu5 諺語) can get. These include four-character idioms (sing4 jyu5 成語) such as “the elephant flies across the river” (fei1 zoeng6 gwo3 ho4 飛象過河) – to do something unexpected or break the rules – and everyday slang such as “to stir-fry squid” (caau2 jau4 jyu2 炒魷魚) – to fire someone (or to be fired, if you add the passive particle bei6 before it).

There are also a few two-part allegorical sayings (hit3 hau6 jyu5 歇後語). For example, you may drop into conversation a “blind man eating sweet rice dumplings” (maang4 gung1 sik6 tong1 jyun2 盲公食湯丸). The second part, often left unstated, drives the message home: that blind man “knows the score” (sam1 zung1 jau5 sou3 心中有).

Other proverbs are so colloquial they are hardly ever written down, such as “boiling telephone congee” (bou1 din6waa2 zuk1 煲電話粥) for when someone is talking for hours on the phone.

Due to Canton’s humble beginnings as a collection of fishing villages, it’s probably unsurprising that so many of the proverbs have to do with domestic animals, eating, and life by the water. What strikes me most, though, is how many ghost-related proverbs there are. I guess Cantonese culture is pretty superstitious, especially when it comes to the supernatural and numerology. It’s common to call a grimace “making a ghost face” (baan6 gwai2 lim5 扮鬼脸). And when someone is making a scene, they’ve “run into a ghost” (zong6 gwai2 撞鬼).

Ah Toh’s comic was created to “propagate southern Chinese culture and protect Cantonese.” While Cantonese is under assault in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, Cantonese is spoken everywhere from Sydney’s Chinatown to the public service announcements on San Francisco’s bus system. You can see the full image of Ah Toh’s cartoon with English explanations for all of the proverbs here, but it merely scratches the surface when it comes to the idiosyncrasies of Cantonese. ∎

The original version of this post appeared at the Anthill. Cantonese transliterations are in Jyutping.

Rosalyn Shih

Rosalyn Shih works in education and is co-founder of Beijing Contact Improvisation. She lives in Kunming, is a member of the Hong Kong Writers Circle and has contributed to the anthologies Hong Kong Future Perfect and HK24.