The knowledge of the ancients

Chinese idioms inspire a new genre of TV quiz


Taking the proverbial: quiz shows on old idioms prove popular

“It’s all Greek to me” – an expression indicating a failure to understand something – is believed to have originated from medieval monasteries when scribes had trouble translating from ancient Greek. The metaphor became an English idiom after William Shakespeare used it in his 1599 play The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (to be precise Casca actually says “it was Greek to me”).

But when the Greeks themselves encounter similar difficulties, the phrase rather obviously loses its punch. So they switch tack, complaning that “this strikes me as Chinese”.

So is Chinese the hardest language and thus most worthy of the phrase? Some academic studies suggest so. A standard Kangxi Dictionary (Emperor Kangxi ordered its compilation in 1710) contains 47,035 Chinese characters and their written forms give no clue as to how they should be pronounced. Perhaps rather proudly, the People’s Daily has also ranked Chinese as the most difficult language to learn, above Greek and Arabic.

Chinese can also lay claim to being one of the very few ‘living’ languages to have been spoken for 4,000 years. As a result many phrases have been invented through the centuries and remain fossilised in linguistic form, often serving as reminders of distant historical episodes. The most popular expressions are known as chengyu, which means “established speech”, and are often linked with stories, famous quotes or fables. The Warring States period (475-211 BC) was one of the most prolific sources of famous proverbs. For example, “to carry chastening twigs and beg for forgiveness”, which means making a sincere apology, is an idiom based on a true story (for more see WiC191); “a frog at the bottom of the well” refers to someone with limited vision (the phrase originated from the writing of liberal thinker Zhuangzi); while “to draw a snake and add feet to it” (doing something superfluous) is derived from another fable from the same period.

Another fecund era for phraseology was that of the Three Kingdoms, which began in 220 AD. Many idioms from this period are attributed to the storied tactician Zhuge Liang (whose all-round genius bears comparison with Leonardo da Vinci in Chinese historical terms). One example: “To borrow arrows with a thatched boat” refers to a ruse in which Liang sent a boat towards his enemy ahead of the Battle of the Red Cliff. Low on arrows, he knew enemy archers would bombard it as it sailed towards them. But having padded it with thatch, the boat merely collected their arrows, which Liang then gave to his own troops. Nowadays the expression is dropped into conversations when speakers are describing how to use others’ capital to achieve their own goals.

Most classical idioms are reduced to simple, four-character phrases that express sophisticated ideas succinctly. State broadcaster CCTV is now cashing in on this linguistic legacy with its Chinese Idiom Congress. The weekly quiz show tests proficiency in Chinese proverbs and has been watched by almost 350 million people since April.

Guan Zhengwen, the director of the programme, says it has rekindled interest in idioms as a national phenomenon. “More people have become interested in idioms after watching the programme, as evidenced by an increasing number of publications about Chinese idioms, and the fact that schools, organisations and institutes are holding their own Chinese Idiom Congress,” he told the China Daily, adding that the number of academic papers on popular phrases is also growing quickly.

For CCTV it is a case of “killing two vultures with one arrow” (an idiom dating back to the fifth century, it’s the Chinese equivalent of “killing two birds with on stone”). The state broadcaster can finally showcase a programme that promotes traditional Chinese culture (a much-vaunted policy) but which also attracts a huge television viewership.

Unsurprisingly, other series are now trying to make a similar splash, including two more efforts from CCTV called Dictation Assembly of Chinese Characters and Chinese Riddle Congress. Henan TV has also produced Chinese Spelling Hero.

WiC hopes that audiences won’t lose their enthusiasm for the genre, deciding that future episodes “taste like chewing on wax”, which means uninspiring or dull.

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