There’s nothing like spending time to learn Chinese to warm the winter cockles, so here at TCB we all put our heads together to come up with our favourite list of ‘chilly’ Mandarin phrases to see you through the winter months. We’ll start by giving you some of our favourite idiomatic phrases that incorporate winter vocabulary (notice how some of them are very similar to phrases in English!):
冰释前嫌 bīng shì qián xián Literal: Thaw past misunderstandings. In context: To forget past grudges.
如履薄冰 rú lǚ bó bīng Treading on thin ice.
冰冻三尺非一日之寒 bīng dòng sān chǐ fēi yī rì zhī hán Actual: It takes more than a day for the river to freeze 3 chi (approx. 1 metre). In context: Rome wasn’t built in a day.
冰山一角 bīng shān yī jiǎo Tip of the iceberg.
瑞雪兆丰年 ruì xuě zhào fēng nián A timely snow promises a rich harvest.
冰雪聪明 bīng xuě cōng ming Literal: Ice and snow intelligent. In context: Exceptionally intelligent.
冰清玉洁 bīng qīng yù jié Literal: Pure as jade and clean as ice. In context: Incorruptible.
Now for a traditional winter folk song in Chinese, 数九歌 (shǔ jiǔ gē) – of the ‘Song of Nine Nines’. As always, songs are a fantastic way to learn Chinese. In China there is a tradition in which the days after midwinter (冬至dōng zhì) are split into periods of nine, to count down the days until the warming spring months. Here’s the song (thank you to Ruijie Ren for the translation!):
数九歌 – Song of Nine Nines
yī jiǔ èr jiǔ bù chū shǒu,
In the first and second nines, it is too cold to take your hands out,
sān jiǔ sì jiǔ bīng shàng zǒu,
In the third and fourth nines, people can walk on frozen waters,
wǔ jiǔ liù jiǔ yán hé kān liǔ
The fifth and sixth nines are when willows sway along riverbanks,
qī jiǔ hé kāi dòng
In the seventh nine, frozen rivers begin to thaw,
bā jiǔ yàn guī lái,
In the eighth nine, wild geese fly back to the north,
jiǔ jiǔ jiā yī jiǔ,
In the last nine and several days afterwards,
gēng niú biàn dì zǒu
Cattle start working on every farm of this land.
From this song derives the winter idiom 数九寒天 (shǔ jiǔ hán tiān) which means that after the nine days of winter, the weather will be warmer – signalling the true start of spring.
There is also a beautiful ancient winter calligraphy template named 管城春满 (guǎn chéng chūn mǎn) which consists of exactly 81 strokes – one stroke per day throughout the winter period. As China is an agricultural country, the end of winter and the advent of spring are of the utmost importance and this is exemplified by the template. It reads: 待柳亭前垂，珍重待春风 dāi liǔ tíng qián chuí, zhēn zhòng dāi chūn fēng (wait for the willows by the pavilion to sprout, wait for the breeze to blow). From midwinter (冬至) people would write one stroke per day, in the expectation that by the time the whole template was filled, warm spring would have already arrived.
Here’s how the calligraphy template looks:
Some of the more eagle eyed of those of you who learn Chinese may be wondering where the second ‘待’is in the template, but the template should in fact be read in such a way that the ‘待’ is repeated – 待柳亭前垂，珍重待春风.
So, fire up those hotpots and warm up those winter blues! If you have any Chinese winter stories to share with us, please get in touch here – we’d love to hear them!