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Kanji Clinic #37, The Japan Times, May 15, 2003
gFour-kanji sayings pack an educated walloph

My Japanese husband, pushed to the limit by our 8-year old, bellowed: gThatfs the third time this month you have forgotten your umbrella at school and this time I'm not going to drive you there to get it. If it rains tomorrow youfll just have to get wet. Ǝ (self-enterprise-self-profit, ji-gou-ji-toku,)!h Since ours is bilingual household, I--the native speaker of English-- might have said, gYou made your bed, now lie in it!h Either way, our son gets the idea.

Children in Japan and China are exposed from an early age to sayings such as these. Some of Japanfs four-character idioms (ln, yo-ji-juku-go) depict personality types and human predicaments; others--like Ǝ above--are wisdom-dispensing proverbs. The ability to effortlessly inject these zingers into spoken and written communications is one of the marks of a well-educated Japanese person. Students formally study four-character compounds beginning in junior high school, and later do battle with the more obscure ones on exams for university entrance and employment.

Many of Japanfs proverbs (e.g.: ؂痎 Saru mo ki kara ochiru hEven monkeys fall from treesh) are written in sentence form, but the pithy four-kanji variety is comprised only of Chinese characters, with no kana interspersed. While some are homegrown, many four-kanji sayings used in Japan today-- like the kanji of which they are composed-- were imported from China, where they survive as part of the modern language there, as well.

Some four-kanji sayings are surprisingly similar to equivalent English expressions: For example, Γ (one-stone-two birds, is-seki-ni-chou) is a dead ringer for gTo kill two birds with one stone,h as is c (onefs own-field-pull-water, ga-den-in-sui) for gTo draw water to onefs own mill.h

Speakers of English may lessen the force of a statement by pulling out their cutlery in order to gmince words,h or, alternatively, to gcut to the quick.h Chinese and Japanese people also use a sharp instrument when they want to get straight to the heart of the matter: P (single-sword-straight-insertion, tan-tou-choku-nyu).

In contrast to gtooting her own horn,h a boastful Japanese or Chinese person is said to be gpraising her own work of art" (掩^, one's own-picture-one's own-praise, ji-ga-ji-san). Instead of gmaking a mountain out of a molehill,h Japanese turn a needle into a pole when they exaggerate a bad situation: j_ (needle-small-pole-big, shin-shou-bou-dai). When they beg for something, they go beyond ggetting down on their hands and knees,h prostrating themselves fully with gᓪ (flat-body-low-head, hei-shin-tei-tou). Not content to gbust their tailsh on a project, hard workers in both China and Japan gturn their bones into powder and crush up their bodies (Ӑg, fun-kotsu-sai-shin).h Ouch!

Some of my favorite four-character sayings describe undesirable personality traits: |H (no-skill-big-eat, mu-gei-tai-shoku) paints a vivid picture of an unaccomplished person. l(eight-directions-beautiful-person, hap-pou-bi-jin,) is someone who tries to be everyonefs friend and is thus untrustworthy. A person who is prone to embark eagerly on projects only to abandon them midway is deemed a OV (three-day-monk, mik-ka-bouzu): Three days of austere Buddhist temple life have been known to cause aspiring monks to alter their life course.

On the positive side, O_ (outside-soft-inside-hard, gai-juu-nai-gou) describes a person who is gentle in their day-to-day dealings with others, but tough when the situation demands it.

If you want to impress your Japanese or Chinese friends, students, or significant other, pop a few correctly used four-kanji sayings into your conversations. You will impress them even further if you can write the characters from memory on a scrap of paper as you speak. For starters, how about trying \l\F (ten-people-ten-colors, juu-nin-to-iro) the next time the topic turns to human diversity. As you may have guessed, \l\F is roughly equivalent to the English expression, gDifferent strokes for different folks.h

Spoken or written, these four-kanji gems can help you make your point succinctly and with style. They also provide a fascinating window into the cultural soul of East Asia.

For learning basic yojijukugo I recommend w󌱃N@lnQWW Chuugaku juken rankujun yojijukugo 288 (wGakken, ISBN 4-05-300114-5), a pocket-sized volume designed to prepare Japanese sixth-graders for yojijukugo questions on junior high entrance exams. Using comic strips and easy-to-understand examples, it introduces 100 must-know yojijukugo in order of frequency of appearance on exams, and as of September, 2011 was available at amazon.co.jp.

Another column on yojijukugo is here.
New to KanjiClinic.com? Start reading archived columns here. (Column #1, "Don't despair--you can put an end to kanji chaos")
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25 Four-Kanji Sayings (Japanese and Chinese)

Japanese

1. am (Japan-spirit-Western-genius, wa-kon-you-sai)@
To learn European civilization, but at the same time not to forget Japanese culture.

2. 奔V@(praying mantis'-ax, tourou-no-ono)
(originally from Chinese) Pointless resistance. The small mantis, with its axe-shaped front legs, tries to oppose a chariot.

3. ΁@(revere-emperor-expel-barbarian, son-nou-jou-i)
Revere the Emperor and expel the barbarians. (Meiji Era slogan)

4. OX@(hand-in front of-soybean paste, te-mae-miso)
Soybean paste made by onefs own hand. (Self-praise is no recommendation).

5. KޓK@(right-lumber-right-place, teki-zai-teki-sho)
The right lumber in the right place. (The right person for the right task).

6. RV΁@(another-mountain's-rock, ta-zan-no-ishi)
A rock from another mountain. (Good advice from an unnoticed quarter).

7. Ӑ@(big-skill-late-develop, tai-ki-ban-sei)
(originally from Chinese) Great talents mature late. (Said of a late bloomer).

8. @(drunk-life-dream-die, sui-sei-mu-shi)
Live drunk, die dreaming. (Live a debauched life).

9. rс@(sake-pond-flesh-woods, shu-chi-niku-rin)
A pond filled with wine and a woods filled with flesh. (To have an orgy).

10. m_H@(samurai-agriculture-craft-business, shi-nou-kou-shou)
The four principal classes of pre-modern Japan (Samurai, farmers, artisans and merchants)

11. kJǁ@(clear sky-plant-rain-read, sei-kou-u-doku))
Work the fields on a fine day, study on a rainy day.

12. ˎqa@(clever-person-many-sick sai-shi-tai-byou)
Too wise to live long.

13. ֔ (dragon-head-snake-tail, ryuu-tou-da-bi)
The head of a dragon, the tail of a snake. (Something that turns out to be inconsequential).

14. Vs@(elderly-a few-not-determined, rou-shou-fu-jou)
Death keeps no calendar. (One might live to be elderly or only have a few years on earth).

15. Tڔځ@(outsider-eye-eight-eye, oka-me-hachi-moku)
The onlooker sees eight moves ahead. (Superior observation by an outsider).

16. ʏ]w@(face-follow-belly-back, men-juu-fuku-hai)
Obedience on onefs face but betrayal in onefs heart.

17. ~@(bright-mirror-correct-water, mei-kyou-shi-sui)
To have a clear conscience.

18. Nq^ρ@(wise man-leopard-change, kunshi-hyou-hen)
The wise man changes (suddenly) like the spots on a leopard.

19. n (horse-ear-east-wind, ba-ji-tou-fu)
In one ear and out the other. (When spring winds begin to blow from the east, people are happy, but horses are totally unaffected).

20. pnR@(skillful-poor, kiyou-binbou)
Skillful, yet poor.

Chinese

21. lS@(person-heart-difficult-fathom)
The human heart is difficult to fathom.

22. ߋіs (clothing-brocade-night-go)
Dressed in the finest brocades to parade in the dark of night. (Not being able to show the people at home that one has made good).

23. sO@(behind-feet-no-forward)
Binding your feet to prevent your own progress.

24. wהn@(point-deer-turn into-horse)
Pointing to a deer and calling it a horse.

25. lSA@(person-heart-return-China)
The hearts of the people belong to Han (China).


Sources

Taiji Takashima, Fountain of Japanese Proverbs, Hokuseido Press, 1981
Adeline Yen Mah, A Thousand Pieces of Gold: A Memoir of Chinafs Past Through Its Proverbs, HarperCollins, 2002.

List submitted by Laurence Wiig
For more four-character compounds, visit here.