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A Chinese Idiom of Triviality Everyone Needs to Know

Jul. 26, 2019

HSK 3 quiz

We’ve all been in circumstances where minuscule things were blown way out of proportion. According to many people in cities all around the world, wasting time on trivial things is a laughing matter, and basically has little to no place in the fast-paced and modern world. In response to nuances and phenomenons that are unimportant, there’s a Chinese idiom that is conveniently used in this context — “鸡毛蒜皮 (Jīmáosuànpí)”. This is an idiom that literally translates to “chicken feathers and garlic skin”. While the English translation’s literal meaning is a far cry from the actual denotation, it is used extensively to express things that are unimportant. Actually, “鸡毛蒜皮 (jīmáosuànpí)” is derived from an interesting legend and means that something is worthless or unimportant.

Chinese Mini-Test: 大蒜 (Intermediate)

Here’s the original legend of “鸡毛蒜皮(jīmáosuànpí)”.

A long time ago, there were two neighbors: One who lived in the East sold chickens for a living and one who lived in the West sold garlic for a living. Both families had a rather hard life. The family that sold chickens got up early to pluck “鸡毛(jīmáo) chicken feathers”, and as a result, the entire floor was covered in chicken hair. The family who sold garlic also woke up early, but to peel garlic, and their entire floor was covered with “蒜皮(suànpí) garlic skin”. The two families had originally lived in harmony. However, they did have a source of conflict, the wind.

When the wind blew westward, from the East, the “鸡毛(jīmáo) chicken feathers” would be blown into the western neighbor’s yard, while when the wind blew eastward, from the West, “蒜皮(suànpí) garlic skin” would be blown into the eastern neighbor’s yard. The two neighbors often quarreled over such nuance. At one point, the conflict between the two neighbors escalated to the point where they both fought, and eventually went to court to settle the provocative matter. The Judge learned that they were arguing over such a small issue, and said: “Such a small provocation is not worth being settled in court. You have wasted my time, therefore you should be punished.” Some people said the judge was unfair, while others said the ruling was fitting, and that both claims seemed to make sense. Later, the story spread, and eventually “鸡毛蒜皮 (jīmáosuànpí)” became known as a phrase that denotes trivial, unremarkable things, or very small things.

There are various practical ways that the idiom “鸡毛蒜皮 (jīmáosuànpí)” is applied to conversations in Chinese, such as the following examples:

Xiǎo Wáng: Tā shìbúshì duì wǒ yǒu shénme yì jiàn, jiàn le miàn yě bù hé wǒ dǎzhāohu.
小王:他是不是对我有什么意见,见了面也不和我打招呼。
Xiao Wang: Does he have any opinions of me? He didn’t say hello to me when I met him.

Xiǎo Lǐ: Nǐ xiǎng tài duō le, bié qù jìjiao zhèxiē jīmáosuànpí de xiǎoshì.
小李:你想太多了,别去计较这些鸡毛蒜皮的小事。
Xiao Li: You think too much, don’t worry about these trivial things.

Tāmen liǎng fūqī jīngcháng wèi jīmáosuànpí de shìqing chǎojià.
他们两夫妻经常为鸡毛蒜皮的事情吵架。
The couple often quarreled over trivial things.

抬杠 (Táigàng) Argue & 放鸽子 (Fàng gēzi) Fail to Keep an Appointment

Therefore, Chinese idiom “鸡毛蒜皮 (jīmáosuànpí)” may have a literal meaning of “chicken feathers and garlic skin”, which might not be fully understood to the non-Chinese speaker’s ear when taken out of context. However, it is an interesting idiom that was taken from a legend where a judge ruled that a dispute between two neighbors was too minuscule and trivial to be a court case. “鸡毛蒜皮 (Jīmáosuànpí)” or “chicken feathers and garlic skin” is used to express that something is not important, or is simply worthless. You can use the idiom in practical ways when you speak Chinese, that can help you express yourself more fluently in conversations!

HSK 3 quiz
1. Read the dialogue below and choose the best answer to fill in the blank.

Xiǎo Lǐ: Wèishénme Xiǎo Hóng kànqǐlái bù gāoxìng ?
小李:为什么小红看起来不高兴?

Xiǎo Míng: Tā hé Xiǎo Zhāng yīnwèi jiè dōngxi de shìqing chǎojià le, tāmen zǒngshì wèile ▁▁▁ de xiǎoshì zhēngchǎo.
小明:她和小张因为借东西的事情吵架了,他们总是为了▁▁▁的小事争吵。

A. 鸡毛蒜皮 (Jīmáosuànpí)

B. 举足轻重 (Jǔzúqīngzhòng)

C. 独一无二 (Dúyīwúèr)

D. 五花八门 (Wǔhuābāmén)

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