October 4, 2022

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Are penguins ‘Business goose’ in Chinese?

In China, an idiom about business success says that a person who “wants to become the government president and control everything” is a “business geese.” The way it works is that rather than sitting down at a desk, the goose flies in circles around two piles of grain. It doesn’t eat either pile – it just lays eggs in one pile, which doesn’t produce any grains. Because of how much effort the goose is using circling overhead, when it lays its eggs in one pile, all its energy goes into creating new life – and so by moving on to make another nest for its egg-laying efforts before eating anything from either pile of grain. The other pile remains untouched until both are abandoned.

What is a goose?

In Chinese, a goose is a “geese.”

What does it mean that someone who wants to become president and have control over everything is a business goose?

This idiom was created as a result of an actual business proposal in Shanghai’s Zhujiajiao Ancient Town. In 2004, Wang Qiang, an entrepreneur from Hangzhou, came up with the idea to “re-create” Zhujiajiao within Shanghai by opening up various roadside cafes and restaurants for tourists to visit.

Can one pile ever grow enough to prevent the other from being abandoned?

The traditional interpretation of this idiom is that it is about how lazy people are: that their ultimate goal in life is achieving some level of success and then, once they’ve reached it, resting on their laurels. The person who succeeds at something doesn’t actually exert any effort to get there; instead they depend on others to do all the work and ultimately achieve the same result for them. The idiom isn’t about business per se: it’s about government.

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Is it really that hard to understand?

I don’t think I need to tell you that no one uses this idiom in real life, as it’s essentially meaningless. But does that make the concept itself any less silly? Is the whole idea of an idiom where it’s not supposed to be making any sense even less meaningful or useful than if you never intended for it to be used, or useful ideas themselves good or bad? OK, fine, we’ll pretend there’s a coherent explanation for this and move on…

Let’s say you wanted to make your own idiom about someone who is lazy. To be extra “artistic” you decide to make it a bird, so that every time someone hears it they will picture the word they’re reading, and since national culture is different everywhere and nothing is ever consistent, no one will know exactly what kind of bird you’re talking about. In order to create more artisticity (or perhaps because all of the birds that could easily describe a lazy person are already taken by other idioms), you decide to use a penguin. But before we can even picture what this looks like, we need to consider which bird we want in the first place.

Conclusion

The list of actual uses for the word “penguin” in Chinese was much smaller than I expected, using only a single character – 蝦. It’d be interesting to see how many of these could be considered idioms, entered into our dictionary. There are some oddities that would require thinking about the cultural implications involved in the use of these terms.

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