“To Pat A Horse’s Butt” and Other Chinese Idioms

Have you ever met someone that could get away with saying weird things because they were particularly funny or attractive? Because I feel like that’s what an idiom would be like if it were a human. Idioms are a fascinating part of language because they’re so genuinely weird to outsiders who are not part of that particular culture. They’re like mini-inside jokes held by an entire population. (Seriously, “it’s raining cats and dogs”? On it’s own, that statement makes zero sense.) English isn’t the only language to have these verbal oddities. In fact, there are some Chinese idioms that are interesting, to say the least.

1) Point to a deer and call it a horse.

Translation: The deliberate misrepresentation of truth/lies, right/wrong.

The story goes that during the Qin Dynasty, the prime minister, Zhao Gao, wanted to rebel and claim the throne for himself. In order to uncover which ministers would remain loyal and support his decision, Gao went out riding with the emperor and his men on the back of a deer. When the emperor pointed out that Gao was, in fact, riding a deer, the man responded: “Your Majesty, this is a horse,” and proceeded to poll the group of men. Those who agreed with Gao that the animal he was riding was a deer demonstrated their loyalty to Gao over the emperor. If anything, this story proves that the Chinese knew how to pull a prank. I would’ve loved to see what they did on April Fool’s. (Source)

2) Playing the lute to a cow.

Translation: Talking to someone who does not or will not understand what you’re saying.

Once upon a time, a Chinese musician named Gong Mingyi stumbled across a cow while practicing his zither (also known as, an old-fashioned guitar). Hoping that the creature could appreciate his musical talents, Mingyi began to strum a beautiful melody, only to find the cow uninterested and bored. Disappointed, Mingyi instead began to play chords resembling the sounds of mosquitos, which immediately piqued the cow’s attention. He concluded that people, and animals, only hear what they want to hear, while he really should have been focusing on the fact that cows are actually pretty gullible compared to other animals, but I supposed the first message was a little more applicable to real-life situations. This theory explains why the majority of political controversies remain unresolved and why no one can convince me not to like One Direction. I’ve already made up my mind. (Source)

3) To expose a horse’s leg.

Translation: To accidentally reveal a secret.

You can stop imagining people dressing and undressing horses, because this saying has nothing to do with them. The Ming Dynasty’s leader’s wife (whose surname resembled the sign for “horse) was insecure about her legs and often tried to cover them up with long dresses. One day, she apparently walked over an air vent that threw her dress in the air and she laughed and smiled for the camera. Oh, wait, sorry, that was Marilyn Monroe. The wife, however, suffered from a similar problem. On a particularly windy day, the woman’s long dress went haywire, exposing her legs to the world and thus becoming associated with “exposing a secret.” (Source)

4) A wild goose carries a message from afar.

Translation:  (Roughly) I heard it through the grapevine.

Apparently, owls have some competition. The migration patterns of wild geese made them excellent messengers back in the day, and the Chinese relied on these birds to relay information to other provinces. In one case,  a group of invaders called the Xiongnu captured an envoy named Su Wu and held him hostage. When Wu’s companions came to retrieve Wu, the Xiongnu told them that Wu had already died. However, the companions, who had already figured out that Wu was still alive, spun their own lie, and told the enemy that they had shot down a goose carrying a message that detailed Wu’s survival. Finding no other explanation for their claim, the Xiongnu gave in and released Wu. (Source)

5) To pat a horse’s butt.

Translation: To flatter someone.

Okay, this one actually has to do with horses, but it’s not sexual. I’m not in the mood to emotionally scar anyone today. In the nomadic cultures of the northern plains, horses were a main source of pride among the people, like muscle cars to automobile fanatics or unopened Star Wars action figures to nerdy guys. Therefore, if someone wanted to compliment their neighbor, they could just pat their horse’s backside and remark how wonderful it was, kind of like when football players slap each other’s butts for support, but a little less creepy. (Source)

I should note here that I didn’t realize all of these were about animals until after I’d written them all down, which I find pretty interesting. What are some of your favorite idioms from other countries? Why? Or are there other interpretations of these idioms that I’m missing? I’m not an expert on any of these stories. I got most of them from a wild goose I found by a pond earlier, so my information may not be entirely accurate.

Info via Epoch Times. Featured image via Shutterstock.

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