07/01/2020 No. 157
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Tiger in the Art of Chinese Language
By Peter C. Chieh
February 1, 2010

The big bang theory considers the universe to be still expanding, while the solar system moves with the galaxy on its own track toward a destination unknown to us. Similarly, history marches forward with a frontier we call now. Despite the chaos, the sun, the moon and our planet travel together in sync, giving us days, months and years.  Every day is new, but the first day of the year is special.


On February 14, we welcome the arrival of the year of the tiger. In anticipation, my thoughts went back to my childhood and youth. Grandma told me stories of naughty boys being swallowed by tigers. Time and again, I refrained from being a nuisance whenever she said the tiger was coming. “I shiver on the mention of tiger” or Tanhubianse (談虎變色) became a powerful expression of something horrible.


Confucius asked a lady who was sobbing by the roadside for the reason of her grief. She replied: “tigers ate my father, my husband, and now my son.” In sympathy, he suggested she move away from the mountain. She replied: “emperor worse than tiger.” Thus, he thought more about how to be a good king, and went about the country to preach his view on the obligation of the monarch. However, only some rulers took his advice and ruthless rulers abound. “Being on the side of an emperor is just like padding a tiger” has been a proverb, Banjun Ru Banhu (伴君如伴虎), to warn the high officers in a monarchy. The Chinese language is full of short phrases that elegantly pinpoint otherwise lengthy messages.


Many tiger years ago, my grandpa handed me a red envelope with a tiger drawn on it. The envelope was heavy and I felt a silver dollar in it. That was a generous gift for a new year. I opened it and got the coin out. Using this occasion, he said: “you got a tiger cub from a tigress den.” Seeing my puzzled look, he explained: “If you don’t get in a tigress den, how can you catch a cub (Buruhuxue Yiandehuzi, 不入虎穴﹐焉得虎子)? That means you have to take risks, work hard, and use your wisdom to accomplish whatever you want.” He further used tiger-containing phrases to teach me about life.


Now, my granddaughter is at the stage of wanting stories. For the tiger year, she might enjoy one represented by Hujiahuwei (狐假虎威), the fox borrowing the power of a tiger. A tiger cornered and was about to devour a fox. The fox said: “Just a minute. You can’t eat me. I am the emperor of the animal kingdom.” Of course, the tiger did not believe the fox. The fox told the tiger to follow him and see how other animals react. Of course, all animals ran away when they saw the pair. This phrase has many applications. For example, we use it to condemn those who bully the weak by relying on powerful connections.


China has had a long and continuous culture. Thus, it has many elegant stories and wonderful phrases. When used properly, these phrases serve us well. Their meaning may be hidden if we do not know the stories. They make the Chinese or any other language interesting.

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Peter Chung Chieh is Professor Emeritus, University of Waterloo and board director for Central Ontario Chinese Cultural Centre. He was born in Guangdong, China. He went to Taiwan as a child soldier, and was adopted by the late General Sun Li-jen, who gave him a chance to attend school. Following his chemistry degree from Taida (National Taiwan University), he studied nuclear science in the graduate school of National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. He then studied in the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and went to University of Waterloo as a post doctoral fellow. A year later, he became assistant professor and went through all professorial ranks during his 34 years of teaching and research. He retired in 2004.
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