Flowers and trees are closely related to people’s lives. Because of this, for thousands of years, the Chinese people have coined many plant-related words and expressions. For example, Chinese people often associate “美女”(méi nǚ, a pretty girl) with a “flower”, and “君子”(jūn zǐ, a gentleman) with “bamboo.” In this article, I’d like to introduce to you some common plant-related Chinese words.
A willow is a common type of tree. They have long, narrow, and pointy leaves. Willows can fluorish in many different environments. Most willows have a lifespan of 20 to 30 years.
As described in The Book of Songs, (《诗经》shī jīng), willow implies “departure, drifting, wandering.” “柳” acquires this meaning because it has the same pronunciation with “留”(liú, stay). Here are several expressions related to “柳”(liǔ, willow):
1) “柳暗花明”(liǔ àn huā míng)
Literally, this means “dark willows and blooming flowers.”
Colloquially, it means “a beautiful scene or a new vista.”
(Zài jīng lì le zhū duō kǔ nàn hòu, tā dē shēng huó zhōng yú liǔ àn huā míng.)
After so many hardships, his life finally took a turn for the better.
2) “折柳赠别”(zhé liǔ zèng bié)
Literally, it means that someone breaks off a willow branch and gives it to another person when this person is leaving.
Colloquially, this expression means that a person sees another person off with a willow branch. It was a very popular custom in ancient China.
(Wǒ gēn zhe tā zǒu dào qiáo tóu, rán hòu zhé liǔ zèng bié.)
I followed her to the end of the bridge and saw her off with a willow branch.
3) “柳腰”(liǔ yāo) and “柳眉”(liù méi)
Literally, “柳腰” means “willow waist,” and “柳眉” means “willow eyebrow.”
Colloquially, “柳腰” means “willowy or slender waist,” and “柳眉” means “the arched eyebrows of a pretty girl.”
The two words were coined because in early literary works, dangling willow branches in the wind often represented “soldiers’ homesickness,” or ladies’ slim figures.
(Tái shàng dē mó tè er shēn chuān xiù huā qí páo, bǎi zhe liǔ yāo, liǔ méi qīng chúi, shí fēn lìang yǎn.)
The model on the stage, dressed in an embroidered cheongsam, with a slender waist and arched eyebrows, is quite a girl.
4) “寻花问柳”(xún huā wèn liǔ)
Dancing willow twigs often induce people to think about ladies who “are at the mercy of others,” i.e., prostitutes. The two expressions above reflect this usage of “柳.”
Literally, “寻花问柳” means “seeking flowers and asking willows.”
Colloquially, “寻花问柳” refers to “the action of dallying with prostitutes.”
This expression has a derogatory meaning and is extremely offensive to women.
(Liú nǚ shì bù zhǔn tā zhàng fu xún huā wèn liǔ.)
Mrs. Liu doesn’t allow her husband to dally with other women.
“桃”(táo, peach) is one of the earliest fruits planted by our ancestors. Furthermore, it first appeared in China before it spread to central Asia, Europe, and other places. The peach blossom that people are most familiar with is usually pink or crimson in color. The blossom is often associated with delicate and charming girls. Expressions containing “桃” include:
1) “粉面桃腮”(fěn miàn táo sāi)
Literally, “粉面桃腮” means “pink, peach cheeks.”
Colloquially, “粉面桃腮” refers to “pink cheeks of a girl.”
(Tā fěn miàn táo sāi, zài jiē shàng húi tóu lǜ hěn gāo.)
She has pink, gorgeous cheeks, and gets a high rate of second glances when walking on the street.
2) “面若桃花”(táo huā)
Literally, “面若桃花” means “pink face and peach blossoms.”
Colloquially, “面若桃花” means the “the sweet, charming appearance of a girl.”
(Tā nà miàn rùo táo huā de sān suì ér zī bèi zhěn duàn wéi zì bì zhèng.)
Her 3-year-old daughter, who has a pink, adorable face, was diagnosed with autism.
3) “桃花命”(táo huā mìng) and “桃花 (红颜) 薄命”(hóng yán bó mìng)
Literally, “桃花命” means “peach blossom fate”; “桃花 (红颜) 薄命” means “pink face thin life.”
Colloquially, “桃花命” means “misfortune”; “桃花 (红颜) 薄命” means the “tragic fate” of pretty girls.
When the wind blows, peach blossoms fall from the trees very easily. In the minds of ancient Chinese, such fragility symbolizes the fleetingness of youth and the misfortunes of pretty girls.
(Rén men dōu shuō tā shì gè táo huā mìng.)
People all say that his life will be full of misfortunes.
(Tā de zhàng fu hé nǚ ér dōu qù shì le, zhēn shì hóng yán bó mìng.)
Both her husband and daughter were dead, what a tragic fate she has!
4) “桃色新闻”(táo sè xīn wén) and “桃花运”(táo huā yùn)
“桃” is also associated with women and sex in Chinese culture.
Literally, “桃色新闻” means “peach news;” “桃花运” means “peach blossom fortune.”
Colloquially, “桃色新闻” means “sex scandal;” “桃花运” means that a man or a woman is always surrounded by admirers.
(Nǐ zhī dào nà jiàn guān yú yì wèi yì yuán de táo sè xīn wén ma?)
Do you know about the sex scandal involving a senator?
(Tīng wán quán bù kè chéng hòu, wǒ bǎo nǐ táo huā yùn bào péng.)
If you finish all my courses, I guarantee that you will be surrounded by a thousand admirers.
“竹”(zhú, bamboo) grows in the southern part of China and is known for its unchanging green color. Bamboo is tall and hard and always stands straight. Ancient Chinese often use bamboo to describe people who are upright and aloof and have high moral principles.
The different parts of the bamboo are associated with many personality traits. As a result, many expressions related to “竹” have been coined.
1) “坚韧不拔”(jiān rèn bù bá)
It is derived from the firm roots of bamboos.
Literally, “坚韧不拔” means “perseverance and endurance.”
Colloquially, “坚韧不拔” means the firm and indomitable spirit of a noble person.
(Jǖ lǐ fū ren shì yí wèi jiān rèn bù bá de nǚ shì.)
Madame Curie is a woman with an indomitable spirit.
2) “大公无私”(dà gōng wú sī)
Literally, “大公无私” means “big public no privacy.”
Colloquially, “大公无私” means “unselfishness.”
The stem of the bamboo symbolizes straightforwardness and impartiality. Its hard texture on the outside and hollowness on the inside imply “unselfishness.”
(Lǐ fǎ guān shěn lǐ àn jiàn shí yí xiàng dà gōng wú sī.)
Judge Lee is always unselfish and impartial when hearing a case.
3) “气节”(qì jié)
The “joints” of the bamboo (节, jié) implies “气节.”
Literally, “气节” means “air joints.”
Colloquially, “气节” means “high moral principles.”
(Tā shì yí gè hěn yǒu qì jié de lǜ shī.)
She is a lawyer of high moral principles.
4) “青梅竹马”(qīng méi zhú mǎ)
Literally, “青梅竹马” means “green plums and bamboo horse.”
Colloquially, “青梅竹马” means that a man and a woman have been close friends since childhood.
(Lucy hé Jason shì qīng méi zhú mǎ.)
Lucy and Jason have been intimate friends since childhood.
5) “竹篮打水一场空”(zhú Ián dǎ shuǐ yì chǎng kōng)
Literally, “竹篮打水一场空” means “drawing water with a bamboo basket.”
Colloquially, “竹篮打水一场空” means “achieving nothing (it is all in vain).”
(Tā liàn xí le yì zhōu, dàn bi haí shì zhú lán dǎ shǔi yì chǎng kōng.)
He had practiced for a week, but his efforts were all in vain during the match.
The following are more expressions containing “竹” :
“竹板”(zhú bǎn): bamboo clappers
“竹筏 (排)”(zhú fá (pái)): bamboo raft
“竹竿”(zhú gān): bamboo pole
“竹简”(zhú jiǎn): bamboo slip (used for writing before paper was invented)
“竹笠”(zhú lì): bamboo hat (with a conical crown and broad brim)
“竹笼”(zhú lóng): bamboo cage
“竹马”(zhú mǎ): a toy horse made of bamboo stems.
“竹器”(zhú qì): articles made of bamboo
“竹荪”(zhú sūn): a kind of edible fungus found in bamboo groves
“竹筒”(zhú tǒng): a thick bamboo tube
“竹席”(zhú xí): bamboo mat
“竹叶青”(zhú yè qīng) : 1.green bamboo snake; 2.bamboo-leaf-green liquor
“竹篱茅舍”(zhú lì máo shè): thatched cottage with a bamboo fence—a simple dwelling of a hermit
“竹头木屑”(zhú tóu mù xiè): bamboo ends and wood shavings—things of not much value and only of little use
The Chinese words I have introduced above are only a few examples of derived from plants. These words show that the ancient Chinese paid close attention to the characteristics of commonly-seen plants. For learners of the Chinese language, associating plants with Chinese words may be a great way to study the Chinese language, as well as learn how the observations of plants and how they relate them to words reflects the values of Chinese culture.