Chinese has many set phrases chéngyǔ 成语: four-word phrases that communicate an idea or concept quickly to someone who knows the cultural and historical context of the phrase.
Some are really easy to understand, like rén shān rén hǎi 人山人海 : people mountains people sea. This place is very crowded!
Others require some knowledge of Chinese history and literature, like máo suì zì jiàn 毛遂自荐 : Mao Sui recommends himself. If you don’t know a little bit about The Warring States period, you might have no idea why your pal Lao Wang yelled this as he jumped up to fix the paper jam.
English-sepaking fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation would do well to think of chéngyǔ as the language of Tamarians: just think of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, and how much Tamarian history Picard had to learn before he understood what the Tamarian captain was talking about.
I recently learned a Chinese expression: hè lì jī qún 鹤立鸡群: a crane standing among chickens. My understanding is that it’s used to describe someone or something that stands out from the crowd, but I wasn’t sure whether this should be used in a positive, negative, or ambiguous sense.
My American sensibility led me to think it’s positive, since we tend to celebrate the individual. Boy, that kid does math better than the rest of her class. She’s truly a crane among chickens, and we should praise her achievements.
Or should it be used pejoratively? That kid’s always showing off how good she is at math. She’s truly a crane among chickens, and we chickens should peck her down to size, post haste.
I’ve also seen the expression used by American expat bloggers, describing themselves as wildly different from the people around them. In this sense it sounds akin to the English idiom “sticking out like a sore thumb.”
I follow Hacking Chinese and through that learned about Lang-8, a lanugage-exchange site that pairs up native speakers from different languages. So I asked about 鹤立鸡群 over there and they say it’s overwhelmingly positive.
I’m also now completely hooked on correcting the English grammar of Japanese teenagers. I can only imagine how dumb I sound in Mandarin with my pidgin talk about my cold cup of coffee.
The characters on the sticks are kinda-sorta-puns– 吉 (second tone) can mean lucky, but 鸡 (first tone) translates as chicken.
He 鹤 (fourth tone) is a crane (as in the bird, not the construction equipment), but 和 (second tone) can mean “harmony” or “harmonious,” depending on the context. So if you know the original chéngyǔ that character makes some kind of sense.
A flamingo is a 火烈鸟, or fierce fire bird. Which is funny if you think for a minute about how threatening a pink filter-feeder can be.
I’m going to say my newly-minted chéngyǔ is unambiguously positive. You, my friend, are not merely a crane among chickens. You’re a flamingo among chickens. You are just that cool.
The next time you have folks over for cocktails, give the flamingo stick to the guest of honor. Everybody else gets a plain old chicken.
You can download these cocktail sticks for free. 干杯!