Listening to the Wisdom of Chinese Animal Idioms

When learning languages, I love to learn idioms. They often reflect the uniqueness of a language, told through the lens of the cultural values and perspectives of those who speak it. In Chinese, idioms often take the form of pithy, four-character phrases known as chengyu (成語). While not exactly a chengyu, the English phrase “long time no see” is likely a literal translation of the Chinese hao jiu mei jian(好久没见).

The artist duo Mountain River Jump!, composed of the Foshan-based artists Huang He and Huang Shan, has produced a set of 49 Cards of Chinese Animal Idioms, and this reviewer finally got their hands on a deck after regularly finding them sold out online. The images were originally developed in 2017, and they were shown at the Asia Society Museum in 2021 for the Asia Society Triennial.

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The cards come in a two-tiered black box, with instructions for divination on top and the cards themselves in a pull-out drawer. On one side are the phases of the moon and on the other are the neon-bright illustrations by Huang and Huang. This arrangement creates a sense of sacredness and spirit, as if unlocking an oracular treasure.

“Divinatory cards are common in human culture while Tarot Cards are the most popular,” the package notes. “Mountain River Jump! is using Cards of Chinese Animal Idioms to see what will come out when eastern cultural genes mix with fortunetelling in the context of the contemporary world.”

Helpfully, each card contains both the English and Chinese, with a short guidebook to explain the meanings in further detail. I sat down with the cards and conducted a general reading for Hyperallergic readers, to guide you through the next season in this first full year since pandemic restrictions ended. 

As we sit in the shadow of the solar eclipse and a Mercury retrograde cycle, I hope the wisdom of Chinese animal idioms guide our way.

Cards for past, present, future, and one important hint

Past: The cuckoo cries with blood. 杜鹃啼血 (dùjuāntíxuè)

This image calls to mind how it feels to run out of tears — all that’s left is to cry with one’s blood. You may be emerging from a deep sadness, a sense of incredible loss and suffering. Spot on, Cards of Chinese Animal Idioms. Spot on. *bursts into tears again*

Present: A wild horse 脱缰之马 (tuōjiāngzhīmǎ)

Another way to translate this is “A horse that casts off its reins,” which feels so much like this post-lockdown world. It can feel as if things are out of control, which can be freeing but also frightening. “What is even happening?” might be the phrase of the moment.

Future: A golden cicada leaves from its exuviae 金蝉脱壳 (jīnchántuōqiào)

“Exuviae” is a funny word — I might have chosen “shell” as the translation. This is a great escape, which could be escapism or an evolution. But it’s time for you to make your move, dear reader, and let the golden cicada fly free.

So far, the animal idioms land for me, as perhaps they do for you. My only critique is that they’re a little too on the nose, but it’s not the artists’ fault we live in a time of seemingly endless crisis.

The divination instructions suggest one more card for “One Important Hint.” I pull it with some trepidation and learn:

One Important Hint: A clever bird chooses a good tree 良禽择木 (liángqínzémù)

With all the birds and flight in this spread, it makes sense that the hint comes in the form of a good tree. The advice for you, and for all of us really, is to remember what brings us grounding. We can fly free, yes, and we should, but we eventually need somewhere to land. Choose wisely.

The card set

Cards of Chinese Animal Idioms is printed by Jiazazhi and is available widely online.


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