Sunday, January 19, 2014

Saddle up … for the Year of the Horse

Horse calligraphy, by Jasmin
It's riding into town - The Year of the Horse - and it will arrive on 31 January 2014.

In the same way that the western Zodiac has different personality types for people born in different months, the Chinese Zodiac has something for people born in different lunar calendar years. For a bit of fun, if you'd like to understand better what personality you are, and what the Year of the Horse means for you, then take a look at this site which has some great summaries.

But this is a Mandarin-learning blog, so let's dig a little into 'horse' as a character, a word, and as part of larger phrases. This is all consistent with my WordPack philosophy - which helps make learning Chinese much more efficient.

The Character Itself
The Simplified Chinese character for 'horse' is 马, which is written as 馬 in the Traditional Chinese character system - this is pronounced .  Although it's hard to tell, the character actually evolved from something that used to look like a horse! Here's a diagram which I got from Taeglich Chinesisch (a German-language Chinese blog) to make that etymology more obvious:

Just part of a Character
Sometimes, though, the 马 character isn't used as a full character, but rather only as a part of the character. For example, the word for 'camel' is 骆驼 (luòtuo) - note how the horse radical appears in both of the hanzi. When you're learning to read & write Chinese, you need a system to help you memorise all of these variations - I recently wrote an article called Stoned Horses which covers exactly that topic.

Horse Words
There are many words which include the 马 character - some related to horses, and some where the connection is a little more obscure. For your convenience, I have include the full details of the words & phrases below, so that it's easy for you to copy into your flashcard pack. And seriously, if you want to massively increase your vocab, in my opinion you really should be using flashcards.

The format I will be using is:
  • english (simplified / traditional) pinyin: comment
The Actual Horse
  • horse (马 / 馬) mǎ
  • measure word for horses: (匹) pǐ: for example, 'three horses' is 三匹马
  • horse (马匹 / 馬匹 ) mǎpǐ: given the above two characters, this alternative word isn't really a surprise :)
Things Related to Horses
  • saddle (马鞍 / 馬鞍) mǎ'ān: literally a 'horse saddle'
  • horseshoe (马蹄铁 / 馬蹄鐵) mǎtítiě: literally 'horse hoof iron'
  • to ride a horse (骑马 / 騎馬) qímǎ
  • horse racing (赛马 / 賽馬) sàimǎ
Because English uses the Word 'horse'
  • horsepower (马力 / 馬力) mǎlì: uhm, it's 'horse power'
  • seahorse (海马 / 海馬) hǎimǎ: again, as simple as 'sea horse'
  • ponytail - for hairstyles or similar (马尾 / 馬尾) mǎwěi: if you pretend a pony and a horse is the same thing
  • wooden horse / rocking horse / gym vaulting horse / trojan horse in computing (木马 / 木馬) mùmǎ: literally it's a 'wooden horse'
Names & Places - because it makes the 'ma' sound
  • Mark (马克 / 馬克) Mǎkè
  • Marco Polo (马可波罗 / 馬可波羅) Mǎkě Bōluó
  • Barack Obama (奥巴马 / 奧巴馬) Àobāmǎ
  • Rome, capital of Italy (罗马 / 羅馬) Luómǎ
  • Malaysia (马来西亚 / 馬來西亞) Mǎláixīyà
  • Himalayas (喜马拉雅 / 喜馬拉雅) Xǐmǎlāyǎ
  • Amazon (亚马逊 / 亞馬遜) Yàmǎxùn
  • … and so many more example like this.
Figurative Horses - where the connection is slightly tenuous
  • immediately (马上 / 馬上) mǎshàng: get on your horse right now!
  • street or road (马路 / 馬路) mǎlù: I guess it's the place where horses used to ride
  • BMW cars (宝马 / 寶馬) Bǎomǎ: quite a clever name, by sound & meaning
  • zebra (斑马 / 斑馬) bānmǎ: I suppose 'striped horse' is about as accurate as you can get!
  • hippopotamus (河马 / 河馬) hémǎ: it looks like a horse in the river (said no one, ever)
  • fine steed (千里马 / 千里馬) qiānlǐmǎ: literally a thousand mile horse, which would be fine!
  • unexpected winner (黑马 / 黑馬) hēimǎ: literally a black horse, similar to English usage
  • knight in shining armour (白马王子 / 白馬王子) báimǎwángzǐ: a Prince on his White Horse
  • so-so (马马虎虎 / 馬馬虎虎) mǎmahūhū: horse-horse-tiger-tiger, neither one nor the other
  • suck up to / toady (拍马屁 / 拍馬屁) pāimǎpì: to pat the horse's buttocks, to encourage it forwards

Chengyu is a massive body of Chinese idioms (usually four characters) which you can read about here. Below are some of the ones I have found which relate to horses. If you take a look at Chinese-Tools, you will find at least 50 chengyu that use the character 马 - so I will only include a few here, and leave you to trawl through the others if you're overcome with desire.
  • 马马虎虎 (mǎ ma hū hū) so-so: I have already mentioned this one above, but it's one of the first chengyu/idioms that we learn when studying Chinese so it's worth a second mention
  • 兵荒马乱 (bīng huāng mǎ luàn) the chaos of war: soldiers wasteland horses confusion
  • 单枪匹马 (dān qiāng pí mǎ) single-handedly: single spear one horse
  • 非驴非马 (fēi lǘ fēi mǎ) it resembles nothing: neither donkey nor horse
  • 快马加鞭 (kuài mǎ jiā biān) as fast as possible: fast horse add whip
  • 露出马脚 (lùchū mǎjiǎo) unmask the true nature: expose the cloven hoof (also: 露马脚)
  • 马到成功 (mǎ dào chéng gōng) achieve instant success: succeed as soon as the horse arrives
  • 盲人瞎马 (máng rén xiā mǎ) rush headlong into disaster: blind person kills the horse
  • 秣马厉兵 (mò mǎ lì bīng) be combat ready: feed the horse, strict soldiers
  • 一马当先 (yī mǎ dāng xiān) be the first to take the lead: one horse goes first
  • 走马看花 (zǒu mǎ kàn huā) examine a thing hurriedly: ride the horse while looking at flowers
  • 车水马龙 (chē shuǐ mǎ lóng) heavy traffic: car water horse dragon (sorry, what??)

Saddle Up
So now you know the character, the words, the implications. All that is left to do is to have a great Year of the Horse - bring on the dancing horses!!

   Happy New Year!  


  1. I remember learning so many of these phrases! I cracked up at 'it looks like a horse in a river (said no one, ever)', thank you for the wonderful laugh this morning!

    Happy Chinese New Year Greg! Wishing you the best in 2014 :)

    1. And happy new year to you … may the Horse be good to you and your aspirations!