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13: Slang

Although native scholars in China have not deemed it worth while to compile such a work as the "Slang Dictionary," it is no less a fact that slang occupies quite as important a position in Chinese as in any language of the West. Thieves have their _argot_, as with us, intelligible only to each other; and phrases constantly occur, even in refined conversation, the original of which can be traced infallibly to the kennel. _Why so much paint?_ is the equivalent of _What a swell you are!_ and is specially expressive in China, where beneath a flowered blue silk robe there often peeps out a pair of salmon-coloured inexpressibles of the same costly material. _They have put down their barrows_, means that certain men have struck work, and is peculiarly comprehensible in a country where so much transport is effected in this laborious way. Barrows are common all over the Empire, both for the conveyance of goods and passengers; and where long distances have to be traversed, donkeys are frequently harnessed in front. The traditional sail is also occasionally used: we ourselves have seen barrows running before the wind between Tientsin and Taku, of course with a man pushing behind. _The children have official business_, is understood to mean they are laid up with the small-pox; the metaphor implying that their _turn_ has come, just as a turn of official duty comes round to every Manchu in Peking, and in the same inevitable way. Vaccination is gradually dispelling this erroneous notion, but the phrase we have given is not likely to disappear.

A magistrate who has _skinned the place clean_, has extorted every possible cash from the district committed to his charge--a "father and mother" of the people, as his grasping honour is called. _That horse has a mane_, says the Chinese housebreaker, speaking of a wall well studded at the top with pieces of broken glass or sharp iron spikes. _You'll have to sprinkle so much water_, urges the friend who advises you to keep clear of law, likening official greed to dust, which requires a liberal outlay of water in the shape of banknotes to make it lie. A _flowery bill_ is understood from one end of China to the other as that particular kind in which our native servants delight to indulge, namely, an account charging twice as much for everything as was really paid, and containing twice as much in quantity as was actually supplied. A _flowery suit_ is a case in which women play a prominent part. _You scorched me yesterday_ is a quiet way of remarking that an appointment was broken, and implying that the rays of the sun were unpleasantly hot. _Don't pick out the sugar_ is a very necessary injunction to a servant sent to market to buy food, &c., the metaphor being taken from a kind of sweet dumpling consumed in great quantities by rich and poor alike. Another phrase is, _Don't ride the donkey_, which may be explained by the proverbial dislike of Chinamen for walking exercise, and the temptation to hire a donkey, and squeeze the fare out of the money given them for other purposes. _That house is not clean inside_, signifies that devils and bogies, so dreaded by the Chinese, have taken up their residence therein; in fact, that the house is haunted. _He's all rice-water_, i.e., gives one plenty of the water in which rice has been boiled, but none of the rice itself, is said of a man who promises much and does nothing. _One load between the two_ is very commonly said of two men who have married two sisters. In China, a coolie's "load" consists of two baskets or bundles slung with ropes to the end of a flat bamboo pole about five feet in length, and thus carried across the shoulder. Hence the expression. Apropos of marriage, _the guitar string is broken_, is an elegant periphrasis by which it is understood that a man's wife is dead, the verb "to die" being rarely used in conversation, and never of a relative or friend. He will not _put a new string to his guitar_ is, of course, a continuation of the same idea, more coarsely expressed as _putting on a new coat_. His father has been _gathered to the west_--a phrase evidently of Buddhistic import--_is no more, has gone for a stroll, has bid adieu to the world_, may all be employed to supply the place of the tabooed verb, which is chiefly used of animals and plants. After a few days' illness _he kicked_, is a vulgar way of putting it and analogous to the English slang idiom. The Emperor _becomes a guest on high_, riding up to heaven on the dragon's back, with flowers of rhetoric ad nauseam; Buddhist priests _revolve into emptiness_, i.e., are annihilated; the soul of the Taoist priest _wings its flight away_.

_Only a candle-end left_ is said of an affair which nears completion; _red_ and _white matters_ are marriages and deaths, so called from the colour of the clothes worn on these important occasions. A blushing person _fires up_, or literally, _ups fire_, according to the Chinese idiom. To be fond of _blowing_ resembles our modern term _gassing_. A _lose-money-goods_ is a daughter as compared with a son who can go out in the world and earn money, whereas a daughter must be provided with a dowry before any one will marry her. A more genuine metaphor is a _thousand ounces of silver_; it expresses the real affection Chinese parents have for their daughters as well as their sons. To _let the dog out_ is the same as our letting the cat out; to _run against a nail_ is allied to kicking against the pricks. A man of superficial knowledge is called _half a bottle of vinegar_, though why vinegar, in preference to anything else, we have not been able to discover. He has always _got his gun in his hand_ is a reproach launched at the head of some confirmed opium debauchee, one of those few reckless smokers to whom opium is indeed a curse. They have _burnt paper together_, makes it clear to a Chinese mind that the persons spoken of have gone through the marriage service, part of which ceremony consists in burning silver paper, made up to resemble lumps of the pure metal. _We have split_ is one of those happy idioms which lose nothing in translation, being word for word the same in both languages, and with exactly the same meaning. _A crooked stick_ is a man whose eccentricities keep people from associating freely with him; he won't lie conveniently in a bundle with the other sticks.

We will bring this short sketch to a close with one more example, valuable because it is old, because the date at which it came into existence can be fixed with unerring certainty, and because it is commonly used in all parts of China, though hardly one educated man in ten would be able to tell the reason why. A jealous woman is said _to drink vinegar_, and the origin of the term is as follows:--Fang Hsuan-ling was the favourite Minister of the Emperor T'ai Tsung, of the T'ang dynasty. He lived A.D. 578-648. One day his master gave him a maid of honour from the palace as second wife, but the first or real wife made the place too hot for the poor girl to live in. Fang complained to the Emperor, who gave him a bowl of poison, telling him to offer his troublesome wife the choice between death and peaceable behaviour for the future. The lady instantly chose the former, and drank up the bowl of _vinegar_, which the Emperor had substituted to try her constancy. Subsequently, on his Majesty's recommendation, Fang sent the young lady back to resume her duties as tire-woman to the Empress. But the phrase lived, and has survived to this day.