Sunday, September 23, 2012

When the boat arrives ...

The other day, in response to something I said in a Mandarin conversation, the person replied, "船到桥头自然直" (chuán dào qiáotóu zìrán zhí). I stared blankly - these were words that my brain figured I should understand, but I didn't quite get what they were saying.

Actually, it's a Chinese idiom - and I've had lots to say about such idioms in the past. Literally it means "When the boat gets to the bridge-head, it will naturally go straight", or in other words, "Everything will be alright."

I made a note to copy this into my flashcards, and when I got home I typed "船到" into my dictionary, only to discover that there are actually a few idioms that begin when the boat arrives.

Without much explanation, for your interest, amusement & education, here they are:

chuán dào jiāng xīn, bǔ lòu chí
Once the ship has reached the middle of the river, it's too late to plug the leak
(English equivalent: No point in closing the stable door after the horse has bolted)

chuán dào mǎtóu, chē dào zhàn
The ship has docked, the carriage has reached the station
(The job is over, it's time to relax)

chuán dào qiáomén, zì huì zhí
When the ship arrives at the bridge we can deal with the problem
(No point in worrying until it actually happens)

And actually, there are a few such idioms which talk about cars arriving too:

chē dào shān qián bìyǒu lù
When we get to the mountain, there'll be a way through
(The same meaning as the opening idiom about boats)

(A slight variation of the above)

车到山前必有路,船到桥头自然直 车到山前必有路,船到桥头自然直
chē dào shān qián bìyǒu lù, chuán dào qiáotóu zìrán zhí
When we get to the mountain, there'll be a way through and when the boat gets to the pier-head, it will go straight with the current
(This is a mega version combining both ships & cars)

Make sure you quickly copy at least one of these into your flashcards NOW, before you realise that your ship has sailed  :-)


  1. What an interesting post! One of my biggest worries during my studies would be not understanding when someone shares an idiom with me in the future. You clearly know exactly what to do -- look it up! :) Thank you for sharing that with us Greg. How are you? It's been so long!

    1. Hello again Kara

      Yes, in addition to learning vocab and grammar, having to learn idioms does add a pile of work to your Chinese studies - and a fair number of idioms that I read or hear I don't know.

      But a few months ago I realised that what I should be doing is learning to recognise idioms when I hear/read them, to understand what they mean. Previously I was also trying to memorise them so that I could use them - but actually that isn't necessary. I can speak fine non-idiomatically, it's really only understanding that I need.

      And it takes much less effort to learn to understand than to learn to speak them :-)

      Do you have much time these days to progress your Chinese?

    2. Not at all, unfortunately -- but I decided that post-bachelor's (since I'm graduating early, so I'll have 9 months before PhD) I'm going to diligently work on my Chinese daily (fortunately, I do remember a lot! I still understand most of what people are saying when people talk to me or pass by). That way, I won't have just about an 8-year difference once my PhD is over from the last time I studied Chinese.

      I'll be done with my PhD by 26 -- so that will be 4 years with plenty of time to become fluent before 30 ;) Doing that with a goal of 10 new vocabulary daily or watching TV shows like I did before is bound to do the trick -- of course, topped off with visiting China or Taiwan to delve myself in it. I'm still hoping to Study Abroad next year, but we'll find out! If they offer it next winter (since I'll be finishing up then) I'll definitely go. :)

      How are your studies going, Greg? Clearly, you're doing well as always! How long has it been, now?

    3. Kara, sheesh - PhD, eh? Go for it! I agree with your comment, if you're squeezing in a little bit of vocab, and relaxing with Chinese TV shows, then you can do that at the same time as your PhD *and* still make material progress. Good luck with your goal to study overseas.

      I'm still struggling a bit for time, which is partly why my blog posts happen quite seldom (and are certainly shorter), but still get in my flashcards. Always get in my flashcards!

  2. That's fantastic! How are you doing, speaking-wise? Also, random question -- do you intend on living in China for the rest of your life?

    Yes! Need a PhD to be a psychologist. But, I'm not down about it -- I actually really want it to start so that I can start doing some real work. I'm not sure how a bachelor's in psychology works over there, but you don't really do anything with it here except learning about theories and doing some research. Otherwise, it's so plain!

    Since we're on the topic of degrees, have you considered taking degrees in Chinese language or culture?

  3. Frankly, I don't speak enough Mandarin here in HK, and I don't hear enough of it in my day-to-day life. Of course, that's my fault - but it does take extra effort, rather than how it just 'happens' when I'm visiting Taiwan, for example. I recently found a video of myself talking with a Chinese friend in Mandarin - and I'm glad to say that I'm better than I was, but I'm embarrassed to say it's not as much better as I would have liked!

    No idea how long I will be here - at this stage, no plans to leave :-)

    And I can definitely state that to do any study in Chinese would be way ahead of my current skill level - I wouldn't understand enough in a lecture environment, and my writing skills - so I don't do much of that - would fail me every essay.

    Maybe in another life ... :-)