Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war to be a phoenix’s tail?

I was talking to someone about learning proverbs/idioms/expressions in other languages the other day, and the person’s principal comment was that they wanted to study modern metaphors and culture, as opposed to stuffy old literary references, etc.

I understood what they meant, especially when you look at it from a perspective of the modern media culture that is so pervasive in the West; however, the neat thing about Chinese is just how often these kinds of devices are still used in modern language–and how universally understood they are.  I still find it surprising just how often Chinese people use these kinds of proverbs/expressions as a kind of metaphoric shorthand for summing up a situation (as a learner, it can actually be frustrating because if you don’t know the reference because you can be perfectly in tune with a conversation and then suddenly become unsure of yourself because someone has dropped a four-syllable idiomatic reference to make their point).

 Chinese Idiom: Rather be a chicken’s head than a phoenix’s tail (宁做鸡头,不做凤尾) — Things Beyond Z

Seeing the latest post on Things Beyond Z, Rather be a chicken’s head than a phoenix’s tail (宁做鸡头,不做凤尾) ,  I started thinking about other ways of saying that expression in English beyond “big fish in a small pond”, when a line from Pink Floyd came to mind:

“Did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?”

If you’re a Pink Floyd fan, I think “Did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?” captures the essence of 宁做鸡头,不做凤尾.  But not everyone is a Pink Floyd fan, are they?  If the song “Wish you Were here” isn’t familiar to you, the reference may not speak to you in the same way.  Perhaps you are (like me), the kind of person who only knows a few Pink Floyd songs, and knows the words to even fewer. Even if you know the song, you may be not be the kind of fan that really gets into all of the lyrics, and you just hum until the chorus comes.

Who knows– maybe young Chinese people and modern TV culture are creating a whole new vocabulary of Chinese cultural metaphors to rival the classics;  maybe there is a Pink Floyd-esque lyric from the canon of modern Chinese music that fans might refer to. Even in this case, however, you’ll still run into the same problem with a significant chunk of the population not being familiar with the modern reference.

Regardless of whether you go with the new or the old, I think the core principle here is to recognize that once we get beyond words and sentences, every language will have another layer of metaphor or some other kind of framework of cultural touchstones that will take some effort to pick up.

The part that isn’t intuitive is that every language has a different personality, so learning proverbs in Chinese doesn’t really equate well to learning English proverbs/idioms.  On balance, I think learners will find that recognizing a large number of Chinese idioms and expressions is an extremely useful part of developing Chinese fluency. I suspect the same is true for many other languages too.

Alas, this is possibly an instance of the pot calling the kettle black, as I really feel like I need to learn more Chinese idioms.  My challenge is that I haven’t done well with learning lists of idioms, and seem to need to learn them one at a time, with some context.    I think that’s why I’ve been a fan of the series of idioms that Cornelius has been drawing and posting on Things Beyond Z— keep them coming, sir!

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