Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Friday, July 12, 2013

Chengyu: Playing the Lute to a Cow


Playing the Lute to a Cow

During the Warring states period, there was a musician named Gong Mingyi. Gong Mingyi was a master of the zheng*, and was much sought after for his concerts and performances. 

One day while in the countryside, Gong Mingyi, inspired by the scenery, decided to play his zheng. A cow stood nearby, grazing in the grass. The musician expected a reaction from the cow to his music, but the cow continued grazing. Gong Mingyi changed his tune for one that was more upbeat, and yet the cow remained indifferent and finally walked away. At first the musician was disappointed the cow did not react to his music, however he came to realize that the cow could not appreciate it. 

This idiom refers to those who speak or write without considering their audience. 

Discuss: Have you ever talked to someone about something that you found was interesting but notice their interest slipping away? Was it a subject they did not understand? Or have you been the one being spoken to about something that meant nothing to you? 

Example: When hubby starts discussing the make of a vehicle and what makes it so special, he may as well be playing the lute to a cow - and yes, that makes me the cow :) When I start discussing what flowers and plants would look nice in our garden at the supper table, and I see Pea, Elle and Hubby staring at me with a blank expression - that is when I realize I am "playing the lute for the wrong audience". It just bores them, and is definitely the time to change the subject. 

* A Zheng is a stringed instrument, similar to a harp.








An idiom is an expression that is not meant to be taken literally. For example, in English, we often use the expression "It's raining cats and dogs". Obviously, we don't take this expression literally, we come to learn that it means it's raining hard outside. 

Though the Chinese have many proverbs and idioms, Chengyu are formalized idioms, usually using only four characters and relating to folktales, classical literature, and historical accounts. The four characters typically state a moral, and in order to properly understand their meaning, it is important to know the story behind them. There are at least 5,000 Chengyu. 


To learn about Chinese idioms is to gain another insight into the Chinese culture, their mores, and their history. We will be learning Chengyu, and their related stories, regularly for the rest of our "year in China". I believe the insights we'll gain will highlight many universal facets of human nature within their cultural context.

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