Language and history

The Chinese characters refer to a whole symbolic and the choice for a name requires study and research. It is the same in the commercial context. For its opening in 1989 in Taiwan, the Carrefour group had chosen its Chinese name with relevance the three characters meaning home, joy and happiness 家樂福, jiālèfú. Besides, the sound reminds the French pronunciation. The symbolism, but also the Chinese history resonates in the language. The expressions, the chengyu 成语 (a fixed expression with four characters) and the sayings, charged with the story of the Middle Kingdom, abound.

成语 chengyu

A chengyu is a fixed form often of four characters, which has often crossed a large part of Chinese history. Written in classical Chinese, it follows neither the grammar nor the syntax of Chinese. It often reflects popular wisdom, or/and refers to historical moments far away or close to our time. Let’s take an example.

卧薪尝胆,   to sleep on firewood and lick a gallbladder

The origin of this chengyu goes back to the 5th century BC. J.-C. Gujian, king of Yue’s state, lost his kingdom during a war against the kingdom of Wu. To quell the suspicions of his enemy, he became a shepherd. After three years, he gained the confidence of the king, who gave him complete freedom. He took the opportunity to prepare his revenge. To maintain his unrelenting spirit and not to soften in a too comfortable life, he slept on straw and tasted bile every morning. Used in everyday language, this expression means to nurse vengeance; to endure hardships to accomplish some ambition.

Chinese proverb

Success of 卧薪尝胆

A series of thirty episodes took the name of this expression, 卧薪尝胆 wò xīn cháng dǎn. It relates the wars between the two kingdoms of Wu and Yue, and shows Gujian’s perseverance and patience in regaining his country. Chinese producers are releasing many historical series, which are quite popular. The language does not leave history, just like television. After 1989, the government wanted to unite the country around nationalism, is, of course, in favour of these sagas that show the greatness of Chinese history. The reactivation of National Studies ( 国学), traditional Chinese studies, is also part of this movement.

In the literal sense, lying on the straw, tasting the gallbladder, the expression is meaningless. It forces us to go back to Chinese history, twenty-five centuries ago, to understand its meaning. The Chinese language makes history even more alive and closely links the speaker and history. Can we have the impression that the language is turned towards the past?

Read more about Chinese proverbs here.
The Chinese series on Youtube, episode 1 with English subtitles

21 July 2020

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