Monday, June 22, 2009

Professor Deborah Post - Chinese Fables

One of my favorite pastimes is language games. I was trying to explain idioms –phrases that if you translate them literally make no sense at all. I used "it’s a piece of cake." Charles (Guo Caishun), the coordinator of the student volunteers,explained that in Chinese the equivalent phrase is that something is "xiao cai yi die" - a small dish of vegetables.

But my favorite was the story behind another Chinese saying – sitting by a tree waiting for a rabbit.

To understand the meaning you have to know the story behind the phrase. The story goes that a farmer saw a rabbit run into a tree and knock itself out. He then feasted on rabbit. The next day he came back and sat near that same tree waiting for another rabbit to do the same thing. The man starved to death waiting for that second rabbit.

I suppose that when you say that someone is sitting near the tree waiting for the rabbit, it means they are involved in a silly or fruitless exercise, or maybe something really silly or stupid. The question for me was what is the English equivalent of this fable, and has it been reduced to some shorthand form? Turns out it is simply that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” The missing piece of the puzzle was the fact that the farmer neglected his fields while he waited for that rabbit. Click here for more information.

This fable dates back to the Song Dynesty and an author, Hun Fei, who lived from 280 BCE -234 BCE. It is also the title of a song by a group called Li Xuan. If you are looking for a Western equivalent, how about a band called Aesop’s Fables? Their one and only album was titled In Due Time circa 1969.

By Professor Deborah Post, Touro Law Summer Abroad Program in China

No comments:

Post a Comment