As deeply rooted in Chinese culture as wuxia is, it’s almost impossible to avoid seeing common Chinese expressions. Without the cultural background or context, some wuxia novels can come off as incredibly cryptic, which can scare readers off of some genuinely good stories. For those concerned, we would like to present to you some common Chinese idioms that you'll often see in wuxia novels, along with a few short, easy-to-follow explanations.
1. The mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the oriole behind.
This is a Chinese idiom describing the danger of single-mindedly pursuing smaller benefits without being aware of the potential risks or consequences surrounding them. In wuxia series, this phrase often describes situations where one party is stealthily biding their time to strike, while the other, or others, squabble over pettier prizes.
2. A thin camel is still bigger than a horse.
The idea behind this idiom is that even if starved or dead, the skeleton of a camel is bigger than a horse. Similarly, a rich family will still be richer than a poor person, even after disaster strikes; or a strong person will be stronger than a weak person even after being weakened. There are a few variations to this idiom depending on translation, but the gist is always that the prestige of someone powerful won’t just disappear because they’re going through hard times.
3. To have eyes but fail to recognize Mount Tai.
Mount Taishan - or Mount Tai, as the ‘shan’ means mountain - is one of the most famous sacred mountains in all of China. It’s an incredibly important historical site, and was a place of worship for many important people, including Qin Emperor Huang Di. With that in mind, this expression means that even though they can see, if someone who can’t recognize something as great (like Mount Tai) they are either ignorant or arrogant.
4. A carp leaping over the dragon’s gate.
In Chinese mythology, there exists something called “The Dragon’s Gate”. It’s a massive waterfall at the Yellow River in Henan. Every year, carps will compete to swim up river and any carp that can make it to the top of the dragon’s gate will become a mighty dragon. The idiom refers to a great transformation after hard work - like a carp becoming a dragon.
5. Becoming a pig to eat a tiger.
This one is actually a very interesting twist on a familiar expression. In English, we would say someone is “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”, but in Chinese, the roles get switched a bit to “becoming a pig to eat a tiger”. In Chinese, the subject is often implied or hidden. In this case, the implication is that it’s the hunter acting weak to catch the dangerous animal, rather than the dangerous animal disguising itself amongst prey. Either way, they mean the same thing - acting weak to catch someone off guard.