Chinese metaphors can mean life or death

 A italki friend raised an interesting question on “whether there are metaphors in Chinese?”. Chinese not only have metaphors and as a matter of fact they play an important part of the Chinese language. Chinese are known for their subtleties especially when it comes to criticism of their superiors. Nowadays if you criticize your boss, the worst comes to the worst is that it costs you your job. However, in the old days, if a subordinate critised his emperor and it were not to his likings, which were often the case, it could cause his life.

The best  example that metaphors saved one’s life is the Han dynasty’s poem,  Seven Step Verse 七步诗, which I have discussed at this blog previously. In that poem Cao Zhi was ordered by his elder brother, emperor Cao Pi, to produce a poem within seven strides to prove that he had no intention to usurp his rule, otherwise, he were to be beheaded. Cao Zhi did so.  Cao Zhi used beans and beanstalks as metaphors and asked his brother why one part of a plant was used to burn the other of the same plant. The illustration was obvious. Cao Pi was said to be so flustered with emotion that he spared his brother’s life. History might have been re-written if Cao Zhi criticised his brother directly, even if he could come up with the poem in seven strides. I tend to think of this situation was like Cao Zhi cracking up a joke at the heat of the moment. In life, the right kind of joke at the right moment would save a job, a marriage, a deal and the likes. The opposite can be true too.

Metaphors of the type used in the above poem are very common in Chinese proverbs (成语 chéngyǔ). For the purpose of discussion I will call such metaphors as “borrowed metaphor” (借喻 jièyù), which is defined as a metaphor which uses a borrowed object to convey a subtle message. There are upteem numver of examples of such metaphors, which I will discuss at this blog from time to time. For this purpose, I will start a blog entitled “Know your Chinese Metaphors







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