A Surprisingly Useful Chinese Proverb Used To Say Something Is Impossible

HSK 3 quiz

Some things in life can be achieved through hard work and dedication. However, there are always a few that are impossible, like trying to fly, or making a duck stand on a perch! We’ve all been there, in situations where we simply feel like giving up on something we’ve been forced to do.

While persistence is the key to getting things done, ‘throwing in the towel and calling it a day’ by settling with what your ability permits is also a wise thing to do after you’ve worn yourself out.

In Chinese culture, there’s a common proverb that’s used to express forcing someone to do something beyond his or her ability. With a streak of ambition and a knack for hard work, Chinese culture has always promoted and emphasized perseverance. However, some things simply should be left for another day — like a boss forcing an employee to walk on thin air, or fly.

There’s a useful Chinese proverb that correlates with all these things that are beyond one’s ability. “赶鸭子上架 (Gǎn yāzi shàng jià)” is a Chinese proverb that literally translates to mean that only chickens can climb onto a perch, while ducks cannot, and signifies forcing someone to do something beyond their ability.

赶鸭子上架 (Gǎn yāzi shàng jià)

There are many proverbs in Chinese that relate to animals, which also are composed of useful lessons, and even may teach you about Chinese culture, while at the same time helping you improve your Mandarin proficiency.

In the proverb “赶鸭子上架 (gǎn yāzi shàng jià)”, “鸭 (yāzi)” means duck. It’s worth mentioning that even though the proverb does relate to a chicken’s inability to climb a perch; “鸡 (jī)”, which means chicken, is not found in the actual phrase. Even so, the proverb is still widely understood among fluent Chinese language speakers, and will make you sound more like a native speaker when used correctly!

丑小鸭 (Chŏu Xiăo Yā) The Ugly Duckling

You might be wondering about the exact origin of “赶鸭子上架 (gǎn yāzi shàng jià)”. If you’re familiar with farming, it might be obvious for you as to how the proverb came to be. Ducks cannot climb a perch like a chicken, solely because of the anatomy of their feet.

Due to the shape of a duck’s feet, it is difficult to get it onto a perch while raising it, despite how hard the person raising it tries. The irony is that this also shows that the person raising the ducks doesn’t understand much about ducks.

All this implies that a leader may force his subordinates to do something without knowing exactly who they are, or understanding the fine details that are involved in doing their tasks. However, on the other hand, with good encouragement, just about anyone can do his or her best to unleash the potential to make the seemingly impossible possible.

Here are examples of “赶鸭子上架 (gǎn yāzi shàng jià)” in sentences as used in daily Chinese conversation:

Wǒmen gǎn yāzi shàng jià shìde ràng wǒmen de háizi qù shàng gèzhǒng xìngqù bān, cónglái bú qù liáojiě háizi de zhēnshí xiǎngfǎ.
We force our children to take all kinds of after-school classes without knowing what’s on their minds which like driving a duck onto a perch.

Wǒde shǒujiǎo bù xiétiáo, nǐ ràng wǒ shàngtái tiàowǔ, zhè búshì gǎn yāzi shàng jià ma!
My hands and feet don’t coordinate but you made me dance on stage. That’s driving a duck onto a perch!

Here are examples of other proverbs that use animals, which are similar to “赶鸭子上架 (gǎn yāzi shàng jià)”:
Búrù hǔxué, yān dé hǔzǐ?

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
If you don’t go into the tiger’s den, how can you catch the baby tiger? The implication is that you can’t achieve success without going through hardships.

Gǒu yǎo hàozi, duōguǎn xiánshì.

A dog catching mice meddles in cats’ Business.
It is a cat’s job to catch mice, but a dog does what it is not supposed to do. The implication describes people who overstep their boundaries and do what they shouldn’t do.

“说曹操,曹操到(shuō Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo dào) Speak of the Devil and He Appears”


HSK 3 quiz

1. Read the dialogue below and answer the question.

Jack: Nǐ zěnme néng ràng Alan shàngchǎng? Tā jīhū méi dǎguò lánqiú.

Bob: Méi bànfa, yǐjīng méiyǒu qítā de duìyuán le.

Jack: Nǐ zhè zhēnshì gǎn yāzi shàng jià a!

What does Jack mean according to the dialogue?
A. Bob doesn’t want Alan to enter the court because he will choose Jack.
B. Bob wants Alan to enter the court because there are no more candidates.
C. Jack thinks Alan is good at basketball.
D. Jack thinks Bob is good at basketball.

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