Bazaar Day!


The 集市 (jí shì), bazaar, is a customary weekly event in rural China, when locals go to buy 蔬菜 (shū cài), vegetables, 水果 (shuǐ guǒ), fruits, 肉 (ròu), meat, and household equipment. The term 热闹 (rè nao), loud and lively, best describes this heaving scenario where vendors 叫卖 (jiào mài), shout their wares amid throngs of shoppers.

There are many Chinese idioms or phrases related to rural life and work, and also to certain vegetables and fruits.

In China, when someone boasts, or as the English idiom goes, blows their own trumpet, we would say 老王卖瓜,自卖自夸 (lǎo wáng mài guā, zì mài zì kuā), which transliterates as the vendor Old Wang praises his own watermelons.

And the saying 种瓜得瓜,种豆得豆 (zhòng guā dé guā, zhòng dòu dé dòu), sow melon seeds and harvest melons, sow beans and get beans, means you reap what you sow.

The phrase 猪鼻子插葱 - 装象 (zhū bí zi chā cōng – zhuāng xiàng), which means a pig places scallions in its nose in efforts to resemble an elephant, describes someone pretending to be something they are not.

When talking about different tastes, the phrase 萝卜白菜,各有所爱 (luó bo bái cài, gè yǒu suǒ ài), some like radish and some like cabbage, signifies that everyone has their own preferences, or that one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

Certain vegetables and fruits have particular connotations in Chinese. Use of the word for 土豆 (tǔ dòu), potato, for instance, can be insulting, as in 长得像土豆 (zhǎng de xiàng tǔ dòu), which compares someone’s face to a potato, meaning unattractive. This may be attributed to the character 土 (tǔ), earth, that connotes a country bumpkin, or yokel. 苹果 (píng guǒ), apple, has more positive associations, because 苹 is the same homophone as that in 平安 (píng ān), peace and safety. Apples are commonly given on visits to sick friends or relatives to wish them speedy recovery, and are also popularly eaten on Christmas Eve, known as 平安夜 (píng ān yè), night of peace.

The names of vegetables and fruits convey different things in cultures. 白菜 (bái cài), Chinese cabbage, for instance, is interpreted as 百财 (bǎi cái), great fortune, in Chinese. But in French it means failure. 玉米 (yù mǐ), corn, also means prosperity in China because of its golden color and ample seeds, a metaphor for many children. This is why jade ornaments are often in the shape of an ear of corn or a cabbage.

Now, let’s talk about 农业 (nóng yè), agriculture – source of the Chinese civilization. The character 农 (nóng), agriculture, farming or farmer, looks like a person plowing. 田 (tián), farmland, has profound cultural implications, such as the distribution or layout of fields. 亩 (mǔ) originally described ridges in field, but later evolved into a unit of measurement, roughly equivalent to 666 square meters, or 1/15 of one hectare. 男 (nán) man, is composed of 田 (tián) and 力 (lì), strength. The combination of the two signifies that men mainly do field work.

The transliterated meaning of 肥水不流外人 (féi shuǐ bù liú wài rén tián) is that no water rich in nutrients should be channeled out of one’s own field, or that one should always ensure that one’s own people reap maximum benefits.

Many Chinese expressions relate to rural social life, as agriculture is an inextricable aspect of China’s culture. Chairman Mao Zedong summed up the success of the Communist-led revolution as 农村包围城市 (nóng cūn bāo wéi chéng shì), the countryside enclosing the cities, meaning the building of Communist strongholds in China’s rural areas to develop military strength sufficient to take over the cities.

Sad to say, some urban residents look down upon people from rural areas. So the phrase 很农村 (hěn nóng cūn) or just 很土 (hěn tǔ), very rural, describes something or somebody as outdated. But many people in China enjoy 农家菜 (nóng jiā cài), countryside dishes, and 农家乐 (nóng jiā lè), farm stays. The term also appears in the name of the legendary 神农 (shén nóng) – the Chinese ruler who introduced agriculture and personally sampled thousands of herbs to become the founder of Chinese medicine and horticulture.