Cantonese proverbs poster

I think it was back in high school when I was introduced to the Pieter Bruegel the Elder painting Flemish Proverbs and I counted it amongst my favourite artwork. That was back when I also preferred Monet over the other Impressionist painters, too. It has a stark style and is a bit of an eyesore but it’s so interesting!

In 2014, in a nod to Bruegel’s work, graphic designer and cartoonist Ah To created a Chinese version for the Passion Times. Specifically, a Cantonese version, and I couldn’t be more pleased. The comic is called “The Great Canton and Hong Kong Proverbs” with the intent to propagate Cantonese culture and language and I can really get behind that. It depicts 81 (plus two bonus) proverbs – why not 88? – and is now available to overseas buyers from a link on Ah To’s Facebook page.

Several blogs have posted about this work with the translations and while I work through it, I thought I would, too, in a more succinct way, doing away with the Soundcloud links and use my Sinosplice Pinyin Tooltips plug-in – hover over the Chinese characters to get a pop-up with the characters in larger font and the pronunciation.

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01 上山捉蟹(難上加難)
To catch crabs on a hill
Harder than hard, almost impossible.
02 鬼揞眼
A ghost covers one’s eyes
To fail to see/find something / A Freudian slip
03 有錢使得鬼推磨
If you have money, you can make a ghost push a millstone
Everything is possible with money; money makes the world go around.
04 鬼畫符
A ghost draws a talisman
Illegible scribble, poor handwriting
05 鬼拍後尾枕
A ghost slaps the back of one’s head
To let out a secret unknowingly
06 多個香爐多隻鬼
An extra incense burner would attract an extra ghost
Creating chance for someone to share your benefit / A foolish act to invite losses.
07 呃鬼食豆腐
To trick a ghost into eating tofu
To lure someone into a trap, to trick someone / Used to express skepticism or disbelief, “You’re kidding me!”
08 扮鬼扮馬
To masquerade as a ghost and as a horse
To play a role to deceive/trick somebody
09 放飛機
To throw a paper airplane
To break a promise/commitment / To fail to turn up for a date
10 樹大有枯枝
A big tree has some dead branches
There are good and bad people in every group.

11 床下底吹喇叭(低聲下氣)
Blowing a horn under the bed
In a begging/humble tone (kowtow position is implied)
12 佛都有火
Even Buddha gets inflamed
To a degree that is intolerable, “That’s the limit!”
13 老貓燒鬚
An old cat burns its whiskers
An expert who makes a careless mistake in his/her own expertise.
14 拉牛上樹
To pull a cow up a tree
A vain attempt to do something
15 豬乸會上樹
Female pigs can climb trees
When pigs fly
16 開籠雀
A bird in an open cage
Someone who chatters all of the time
17 兩頭蛇
Two-headed snake
Someone who works for both sides in a deal / A servant of two masters
18 床下底劈柴(撞板)
Chopping wood under a bed
Epic fail / A method that doesn’t work (If someone under a bed but moves vigorously, he would probably bang his head against the bed above him.)
19 玻璃夾萬(有得睇冇得使)
A glass safe
Something that looks good but is not practical
20 上面蒸鬆糕 下面賣涼粉
Steaming sponge cake on top, selling glass jelly below.
It usually describes women who wear heavy clothing on top but barely cover their legs with mini skirts/short shorts during cold winter.

21 掛羊頭賣狗肉
Hanging up a sheep’s head and sell dog meat
Try to palm off something
22 大石砸死蟹
A big stone crushes a crab
An unequal contest
23 倒瀉籮蟹
Spilled a basket of crabs
Messy, troublesome
24 賣魚佬洗身(冇晒聲(腥)氣
A fishmonger washes his body (no stinky smell)”
To have yet to receive a positive response (冇晒腥氣 sounds like 冇晒聲氣 which means “no news”)
25 煲電話粥
To boil telephone congee
To talk for hours on the phone.
26 冬瓜豆腐
Wintermelon and tofu
An emergency/crisis / An unfortunate event, especially death
27 倒吊沙煲(窮到冇米)
A pot hanged upside down
Poverty/penniless (implied there is no rice left)
28 十個沙煲九個蓋
Ten teapots and nine lids
Demand outnumbers supply / Not enough
29 刀仔据大樹
Use a little knife to saw down a tree
Use little capital to make big profit
30 賊佬試沙煲
A thief breaks a clay pot
Test the waters before doing bad things

31 冇柄遮(死撐)
An umbrella with a broken handle
To fight to the bitter end / To refuse to admit one is in the wrong
32 甩繩馬騮
Loose string monkey
A very naughty child / Someone no longer under the control of their superior or guardian
33 馬騮執到桔(執到寶咁開心)
A monkey got a tangerine
Someone looks very happy as if he has discovered a treasure
34 運桔
To ship tangerines
To visit a shop or a person without any particular purpose, to be “just looking” in a shop / To waste someone’s time
35 鬼食泥
A ghost eats mud
To slur your words
36 盲公食湯圓(心中有數)
A blind man eats glutinous rice balls
Know the score
37 食拖鞋飯
To eat slippers rice
Used to describe a man who is supported by a woman, i.e., he can keep his slippers on, because he doesn’t have to work / A man who sponges off a woman
38 食人隻車
To have eaten someone’s cart
To exploit or expropriate the belongings of others (a reference to the rules of Chinese chess)
39 食碗面反碗底
To eat from a bowl and then turn it over
Go back upon somebody. Play somebody false. Betray a friend.
40 食死貓
To eat a dead cat
To take the blame for something one has not done / To be a scapegoat, to “carry the can”

41 放葫蘆(吹噓)
To throw a gourd
Self-boasting, bragging
42 放飛劍(吐痰)
To throw a flying sword
To spit
43 企喺城樓睇馬打交(袖手旁觀)
To watch a horse fight from the top of a fort
Observing from the sidelines
44 飛象過河
An elephant flies across the river
To break a rule / To reach across the table for food (a reference to the rules of Chinese chess)
45 事急馬行田
In a crisis, a horse can move in the field
To be flexible, to adapt to circumstances in an emergency (a reference to the rules of Chinese chess).
46 過橋抽板
To pull up the planks after crossing the bridge
To betray one’s friends once the crisis is over, to abandon one’s friends once one is safe
47 和尚擔遮(無法(髮)無天)
A monk holding an umbrella
No respect for law and order / Unruly (無髮無天 “no hair no sky” sounds like 無法無天 “no law no heaven”)
48 牛唔飲水唔撳得牛頭低
If a cow doesn’t want to drink, you can’t force its head down
If someone is unwilling to do something, it is not possible to force them / You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.
49 冇鞋挽屐走
When there are no shoes, grab the clogs and run
To withdraw hurriedly from an awkward situation
50 馬死落地行
When one’s horse dies, one has to walk
To rely on oneself, to have to get oneself through a difficulty without help.

51 捉到鹿唔識脫角
Caught the deer but can’t get the horn
To be unable to make best use of an opportunity.
52 一竹篙打一船人
Hitting everyone on a boat with a punt pole
To overgeneralise in assigning blame, e.g., to blame a whole group of people for one person’s mistake. Get tarred with the same brush.
53 缸瓦船打老虎(盡地一煲)
Hitting a tiger inside a boat full of potteries
To risk everything on one bet / To gamble everything on one plan
54 船頭尺(度水)
Plumb line on a ship
Someone who is always asking others for money (since 度水 dohk séui can mean either “to borrow money” or “to measure water”).
55 黑狗偷食 白狗當災
The black dog gets the food, the white dog gets the punishment
Somebody benefits by their wrongdoing, while another person gets the blame.
56 豬籠入水(八面亨通)
Water enters a pig basket
To have many different ways to make money, to have money coming from many different enterprises or sources.
57 濕水炮仗
A damp firecracker
Useless / Someone with a calm temperament, who doesn’t lose their temper
58 菠蘿雞(一味靠黐)
Pineapple chicken
Someone who takes advantage of other people / An exploiter
59 單眼佬睇老婆(一眼睇晒)
One-eyed man looks at his wife
Too few/simple/obvious that one can see/understand everything in a “second”.
60 狗仔抬轎(不識抬舉)
Puppies lifting/carrying a sedan chair
Fail to appreciate others’ favours/flattering (不識抬舉 not knowing how to lift/carry things)

61 畫隻耳上牆(當你耳邊風)
Draw an ear on the wall
Words treated as unimportant, advice that is ignored
62 摸門釘
To scrape the door nails
To go to visit someone but not find them at home, to arrange a meeting with someone but not to find them.
63 狗咬狗骨
A dog bites another dog’s bones
Fighting among members of the same group
64 死雞撐飯蓋
Using a dead chicken to push back the cooking-pot lid
To fight to the bitter end, to refuse to admit one is in the wrong
65 炒魷魚
To stir-fry squid
To dismiss an employee
66 劏白鶴(湯白喝)
To slaughter a white crane
To vomit, to throw up
67 風扇底傾偈(講風涼話)
Talking under a fan
Saying something rude upon others’ mistakes or misfortune, inconsiderate to others’ feeling (風涼話 a chilling talk)
68 風吹雞蛋殼(財散人安樂)
Wind breaks an eggshell
Don’t worry about losing money. Be at ease with less fortune.
69 打蛇隨棍上
To hit a snake and it crawls up the stick
To exploit a situation to one’s advantage, to ask for something or something extra by seizing a particular opportunity.
70 禾稈冚珍珠
Rice stalks covering pearls
To pretend to be poor, to hide one’s true wealth (e.g., residents of public housing estates who are too wealthy to qualify for public housing)

71 雞食放光蟲(心知肚明)
A chicken eats fireflies
To know in one’s heart, to fully understand, to not need to think further (As the chicken eats fireflies, its belly lights up)
72 冇厴雞籠(自出自入)
A doorless chicken coop
A place where you can come and go as you wish.
73 籠裏雞作反
The chickens are fighting inside the coop
Dissent withing an organisation, an internal rift, factional fighting / Infighting
74 一雞死一雞鳴
One chicken dies, one chicken crows
When one person leaves a business or an occupation, another will take it up.
75 老鼠拉龜(冇掟埋手)
A mouse pulls a turtle
At one’s wits’ end
76 扯貓尾
To pull a cat’s tail
Two people supporting each other’s stories in order to avoid a problem / To lie one’s way out of a problem.
77 捉黃腳雞
To catch a yellow-legged chicken
To catch someone having illicit sex / To arrange a trap or “set up” in which someone is blackmailed after being lured into having sex, to set a “honey trap”.
78 貼錯門神
To paste up the door gods wrongly
To become hostile, to turn aggressive and nasty (since the door gods are normally pasted up so that they face each other, put if put up wrongly they face away from each other).
79 龜過門檻(唔上唔落)
A tortoise passing a sill
Unable to solve a problem or escape from it. A stalemate. (Implying someone who can’t get on or get off.)
80 騎牛揾馬
To ride an ox looking for a horse
To be working one job but looking out for a better one

81 執死雞
To pick up a dead chicken
To take something which someone else has lost or thrown away / To take advantage of a situation / To start off a relationship with someone who has been rejected by their former lover / To get the benefit of someone else’s hard work / To score an easy goal after a shot has been blocked by the goal keeper.
82 水過鴨背
Water off a duck’s back
To make no impression on (the memory), to forget (a lesson) / Like water off a duck’s back
83 咁大隻蛤乸隨街跳
such a big frog hopping around the street
Too good to be true

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