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Clearing Up Confusion Surrounding Some Confusing Phrases

Jun. 18, 2021

If you were to Google “confusing things about Chinese”, you’d get approximately 39,100,000 results (trust us, we just tried). There are a lot of aspects of learning the language that might trip you up, things like pronunciation, writing characters, all the different ways to say “grandparent”, and more, but today we wanted to have some fun and explain a few phrases that may throw you off when you first see them.

Also, our last example has some insight into Chinese humor and internet vocabulary, so make sure you read to the end!

1. tiào jìn huáng hé yě xǐ bù qīng 跳进黄河也洗不清
Literal meaning: “Unable to wash oneself clean even if one jumps into the Yellow River.”
Metaphorical meaning: to be unable to rid oneself of a connection to something bad or of suspicion

In fact, this expression was originally phrased as an allegorical saying: “Jumping into the Yellow River can’t wash it clean” due to the fact that the Yellow River was known for its turbid water, i.e., “these bad results were inevitable”—washing in the Yellow River would only make someone dirtier! As such, people were careful not to say, “Even jumping into the Yellow River can’t wash it clean,” because everyone knew that already.

HSK 3 quiz

However, over time the word “also (yě 也)” was added, and the phrase gradually changed to mean “Unable to wash oneself clean even if one jumps into the Yellow River”, making the Yellow River a stand-in for any body of water and giving a more subjective agency to the meaning, like “that’s not the way to clear your name” or “there’s no way to get out of this one.”

The two meanings, the old and the new, are very similar, though when most people use the expression nowadays they are referring to the latter.

Example 例句 (lìjù):

nǐ  zhè  shì  wū  miè  wǒ! nǐ  zhè  yàng  shuō  wǒ  jiù  shì  tiào  jìn  huáng  hé  yě  xǐ  bù  qīng.
你   这   是   污   蔑   我!  你   这    样      说     我   就    是   跳   进     黄     河  也  洗   不   清。
You’re slandering me! If you say something like this there’s no way I can clear my name.

2. shě dé hái zi tào bú zhù láng 舍不得孩子套不住狼

Literal meaning: “You can’t catch a wolf if you’re afraid to risk losing your child.”
Metaphorical meaning: to achieve a certain purpose one must pay the price

The essential meaning behind this expression is that sacrifices must be made, or must be prepared to be made, in order to reach a goal. Seems pretty straightforward, right? Then why all this talk about losing a child?

One not-so-happy idea is that a child might be the bait that draws a wolf into a trap—perhaps not the model for responsible parenting we should draw on these days—hence we must be prepared to risk losing something precious to us if we’re looking to gain something precious.

HSK 3 quiz

There is, however, the fact that in ancient Chinese there were no ‘j-‘, ‘q’ or ‘x’ pinyin sounds, and pronunciation was slightly different overall. At that time, the word for “shoes” was not pronounced the same way it is today, as “xié zi”, but rather as “hái zi”… the modern word for “child”. If we look at it this way, the expression takes on a significantly less morbid meaning: “You can’t catch a wolf if you’re worried about ruining your shoes.” This simply referred to the fact that catching a wolf might mean climbing mountains and crossing significant distances, and shoes might get worn out in the process.

Funnily enough, this old word for shoes, “hái zi”, has survived in many local dialects to this day, such as those of Sichuan, Shaanxi, Guangxi, Jiangxi, and Hubei, and so the original version of the expression survived, too.

Example 例句 (lìjù):
shě  bù  dé  hái  zi  tào  bú  zhù  láng,yào  xiǎng  yǒu  suǒ  shōu  huò,
舍   不    得  孩   子  套   不   住    狼,   要     想      有    所      收    获,
bì  xū  yǒu  suǒ  fù  chū.
必  须  有   所    付    出。
You can’t catch a wolf if you’re afraid of losing your child; if you want to gain something, you must pay something.

3. dǎ pò shā guō wèn (wèn) dào dǐ打破砂锅璺(问)到底

Literal meaning: “To break the pot, even cracking the bottom”
Metaphorical meaning: to incessantly question; to get to the bottom of the matter

How does an expression about breaking a pot come to mean asking lots of questions? There’s a character in this expression you may have not seen before: 璺 (wèn). This literally means “a crack”, as might appear in porcelain or earthenware. Well, this word for crack (“wèn”) also sounds like another word you’re probably familiar with— 问 (wèn) which, you may know, means “to ask.” Ah ha! Looks like we’re getting to the bottom of this…

HSK 3 quiz

How do you know when a pot is truly broken and unusable? When the bottom (底) is cracked, it’s probably time to get a new one; likewise, when you have “问到底 (wèn dào dǐ)” you have gotten to the bottom of something by asking questions; the imagery of a broken pot really emphasizes how much you have asked.

This is a fun example of how homophones can be used in allegory, word play, jokes, online euphemisms, and (quite often for new and long-time learners alike) confusion in Chinese!

Example 例句 (lìjù):
wèi  le  zhuī  xún  shì  shí  zhēn  xiàng ,wǒ  men  yào  yǒu
为   了    追    寻    事    实    真     相 ,   我     们     要    有
dǎ  pò  shā  guō  wèn  dào   dǐ  de  yǒng  qì  hé   jué  xīn.
打   破    砂   锅    问    到     底   的    勇    气   和    决   心。
In order to find out the truth, we should have the courage and determination to ask questions and get the truth.

You May Want to Learn More :
“Why Three Long and Two Short Is Not a Good Thing”
“Are you a fraud? Don’t Be Like Lord Ye!”
”World Book Day”

HSK 1 quiz

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