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Why Three Long and Two Short Is Not a Good Thing

Jun. 3, 2021

The expression “三长两短” (sān cháng liǎng duǎn) , “three long and two short” is a Chinese idiom meaning an unexpected accident or misfortune. It is also sometimes used as a euphemism for someone’s death in hypotheticals or fiction.

The literal meaning of “sān cháng liǎng duǎn” refers to an uncovered coffin. However, in colloquial terms, “three long and two short” doesn’t always have to signify certain death, and might be more akin to accidental disasters and or life-threatening accidents. It’s interesting to think, though, how this concept would not even exist if cremations had always been the burial system of choice!

棺木 (guān  mù): n. coffin
火葬 (huǒ  zàng): n. cremation; v. to cremate

1.The Origins of the “Three Long and Two Short” Found Six feet Under

In its most basic form, a coffin is made of six pieces of wood: the lid and the bottom are commonly known as heaven and earth, respectively, and the left and right pieces are called the sun and moon; these four pieces are long. The short, square front and back pieces are referred to as the colorful head and colorful tail, respectively. While this is six pieces in total, the coffin lid is generally only added after death, so “three long and two short” came to refer to death, perhaps by way of a coffin.

HSK 3 quiz

2. An Alternative Origin of the Idiom That Really “Ties” Everything Together

Coffins were not always constructed with nails. In fact, in ancient times they were originally bound with leather straps as seen in the image below. If you have your math googles on, you might have noticed how many strips of leather were used to hold the wood together—yep, three the long way and two the short way! Hence, “three long and two short” may have once referred to these straps rather than the pieces of wood. In fact, these leather straps came to be indicative of bad luck because of their association with coffins, so it’s not a huge leap to see why “三长两短” once inspired a vivid image of misfortune, even after the straps were later replaced with nails.

HSK 3 quiz

Examples (例句 lìjù) of “三长两短(sān  cháng  liǎng  duǎn)”:

Wàn  yī  tā  yǒu  ge  sān  cháng  liǎng  duǎn ,wǒ  gāi  zěn  me  bàn  ne ?
万    一  他   有    个    三     长     两       短,   我    该   怎    么    办    呢?
What should I do if he has an accident?

Gē  ge   lí   kāi   jiā   de   shí   hou  nǎi  nɑi  zhǔ  fù  zài  sān ,shēng  pà  tā  yǒu  ge  sān  cháng  liǎng  duǎn .
哥   哥  离   开   家   的    时   候    奶   奶    嘱     咐   再    三, 生    怕    他     有    个    三      长      两      短。
When my brother left home, my grandmother told him over and over to pay attention to many things, afraid that he would encounter serious problems.

Grammar (语法 yǔ fǎ):
Sentence of the Day (当日例句 dāng rì lìjù):

Yí  dìng  děi ……cái  xíng
一   定    得……  才    行
absolutely must…

Zài  yě  wài  qí    zì   xíng   chē ,yí   dìng   děi   xiǎo   xīn   cái   xíng !
在   野    外   骑  自   行      车,   一     定     得     小    心    才      行!
You must be careful when cycling outside the city!

You May Want to Learn More :
“Tour the World of Chinese Drinking Culture”
“How Tomb Sweeping Day was Different This Year in China Due to COVID-19”
”Poverty Limits My Imagination”

HSK 1 quiz

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