Chengyu Tuesdays: The Old Man Loses His Horse

塞翁失马 sàiwēngshīmǎ – A blessing in disguise


We've done myths and Cantonese. Now this month we're running a series of interesting 成语 (chéngyǔ), the four-character Chinese idioms that often have stories behind them. Whip them out in conversation to look crazy cultured.


塞翁失马 (sàiwēngshīmǎ) could literally be translated as “this old man lost this horse”. is a particle for “here”, which in this case refers to a border region. is “old man”, often also connoting wisdom. is “lose”, is “horse”. It’s often followed by 焉知非福 (yānzhīfēifú) – “how is one to know if it’s misfortune or fortune?” Here’s the story behind it, from


Alec Ash, Tue 2 September 2014 - 04:51

Summer Shorts: Esther in Shanghai

Trailing classes – flash fiction by Kerryn Leitch


Esther landed in Shanghai with four bags, one husband and zero Mandarin. The air was frigid and zero was also the number of coats she had. She appeared on her well-heeled foreign hosts' doorstep wearing the entire contents of her backpack including a Bolivian alpaca hat, an Indian shawl and a tshirt with an outdated political slogan.

She waited patiently on the threshold exchanging glances with herself in the polished brass door plaque. Embossed in black was the arabic numeral 2 and a Chinese character which she traced with her finger. “Hao,” said the husband, “it means number.” “Two hao, two hao, two hao,” she fogged and traced.


Kerryn Leitch, Sun 31 August 2014 - 12:02

Signing Off (from State Media)

A poem by Tom Fearon


I walked up to the east gate

of CCTV in the summer of ’09,

when a soldier stretched his arm out

his white-gloved hand nearly touching mine.

‘Wow, he’s friendly,’ I thought, going to shake his hand,

but he pulled it back and made a scowl,

“Please show your ID, young foreign man!”


Tom Fearon, Thu 28 August 2014 - 02:49

Cantonese Tuesdays: If Elephants Could Fly


Earlier this year, Hong Kong cartoonist Ah Toh (阿塗) published a Cantonese comic through the independent magazine Passion Times that became an instant viral hit. Based on Netherlandish Proverbs, a sixteenth century Flemish painting, Ah Toh’s version includes illustrations of 81 Cantonese idioms. See the full image with English explanations for all the proverbs here.

The cartoon shows just how colourful Hong Kong and southern Chinese idioms are. These include four-character idioms (成语 chengyu) such as “for the elephant to fly across the river” (飛象過河 fei jeuhng gwo hoh – to do something unexpected or break the rules), and everyday slang like to stir-fry squid (炒魷魚 chaau yau yu) for to get fired.


Rosalyn S, Tue 26 August 2014 - 06:00

Beijing Bound

Up in the air – flash fiction by Nick Compton


Been saddled up on this airplane economy seat for too long. I know it doubles as a floatation device, but I have a strong breast stroke and don’t plan on surviving a spiraling free fall from 30,000 feet into the deep Pacific, anyway.

United, from New Orleans to Denver to San Francisco to Beijing. Over 20 hours of mind-numbing, time-bending flight.

You start out early in the morning. Pull yourself out of a warm bed next to a soft girlfriend to load luggage, slurp coffee and pace off reams of reserve energy that would otherwise remain bound up in the maddeningly close confines of a trans-pacific budget flight.


Nick Compton, Sun 24 August 2014 - 07:32

Stranger than Science Fiction

A Q&A with Chinese sci fi author Fei Dao


Up on the LRB blog is my new piece about science fiction in China. Whereas more realist Chinese literature is often toothless to convey the realities about China, I argue sci fi can fill the breach – because of less stringent censorship for a more roundabout form, but also because some of those realities in a country that has squeezed so much change into just a few decades can frankly seem a little sci fi.

I've dusted off an old Q&A I did with Fei Dao, a young Chinese science fiction writer, last year, orginally for the LARB China blog. Plus at the bottom I've included a small truckload of further reading, including stories in translation, if you want to go deeper down the rabbit hole.


Alec Ash, Thu 21 August 2014 - 01:34