Splitting sand at the shadow 含沙射影


Looking at the above title, it sounds more like a title of a kung fu movie than a Chinese proverb. One of the beauties of the Chinese language is the extensive and frequent uses of metaphors. The above proverb is one of the examples of a borrowed metaphor, which is the use of on object to convey a subtle message.  You may be at a complete loss if you come across this proverb for the first time unless you know the background thereof, which goes as below.

 Background

含沙射影 (hán shā shè yǐng) literally means holding sand in the mouth and shooting at the shadow

The proverb could be traced back to a poem written by the renowned Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi 白居易, the content of which in Chinese is 含沙射影,虽病人不知,巧言构人罪,至死人不疑 and the English translation is “concocted evidence is like spitting sand at the shadow, which could cause death to the victim without him knowing it“.

How would someone holding sand in the month and could kill another person by spitting it onto his shadow? Isn’t it interesting? Legend has it that in 朝 (Jin Dynasty), there were certain lake monsters called 蜮 (yu) which caused death to the victim by spitting sand from their mouths. Most amazing of all was that even the shadow of a person which got spitted on by them could die too.

Meaning

innuendo, insinuations.

Examples

  • smearing campaigns in politics (1. showing Obama in a Kenya tribal garb insinuating that he was a Muslim 2. Chavez praised Chomsky’s book in an UN speech insinuating that Americans were devils)
  • smearing campaigns in advertising

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