Plant-related idioms at Taipei Botanical Garden

I was walking around the Taipei Botanical Garden when I came across this sign, which explained some plant idioms. Think this sign could have specified more of the Chinese idioms and provided a proper equivalent in English to explain the idioms properly, but definitely a cool idea:


The  first idiom is expanded to one side as follows:


They may have assumed it is intuitive, but I think they could have added an equivalent English expression to make it suitably clear what “Scolding pagoda tree by pointing [to] mulberry [bush]” (指桑罵槐 zhi3sang1ma4huai2 / ㄓˇ ㄙㄤ ㄇㄚˋ ㄏㄨㄞˊ)means. The expression means to make accusations or tell someone off indirectly or obliquely by telling someone else off.

A good tip for figuring out how to use expressions is to go to and search for the expression. The expression when used in context in news stories will be thrown up as a result. I found the following, for example:

Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 2.22.06 PM

If we go into the stories, we can generally find a sentence or two where the expression is used in context, such as the following:

“扬缓”是延安市宝塔区桥沟镇中心小学的一名女教师,这两天她“摊上大事了”。该校叶校长认为她在学校微信群里说了一句“今天下午开会让狗咬了一下”是指桑骂槐,骂了自己,于次日召开全体教师行政会议,通过无记名投票将“扬缓”停职停薪一周。 (Story can be read in full here)

[Translation: Yang Huan, a primary school teacher in a primary school in the center of Qiaogou township in the Baoda District of Yan’an, has gotten “caught up in big trouble” over the last two days. Mr Ye, the school principal is of the opinion that when Yang wrote “I was bitten by a dog at the meeting this afternoon” on the school’s WeChat group, she was making an oblique criticism of him, and so the next day he held an administrative meeting with all staff and initiated a vote for Yang to be suspended without pay for a week.]

Another expression featured on the sign was the following:


So what does “Southern orange degrading to Northern sour orange” (南橘北枳 nan2ju2bei3zhi3 / ㄋㄢˊ ㄐㄩˊ ㄅㄟˇ ㄓˇ) mean? If we look it up in the Ministry of Education dictionary, we get the answer:


[Translation: Things change along with differences in the surrounding environmental conditions]

But this answer is kind of vague in terms of usage, and we might be left a little unclear as to how it is used in everyday speech. The idiom took its “root” in the idea that the fruits of similar or identical plants would have different tastes depending on whether they were planted in the north or south, because of the water and the soil acidity. We can see this applied to other things using the above technique for searching news stories:

注册制也好。核准制也好,都是世界通用的一种新股发行形式,各有特点,各有优点,也各有缺点,本身并无优劣之分,因此无需过度担忧,该担忧的是南辕北撤,故意曲解,注册制成为南橘北枳。(Full story here)

(Translation: Both registration-based and approval-based systems are used in launching IPOs; each has its particular features, its advantages and its disadvantages and neither is clearly better than the other. For this reason, there is no real need to worry about which is used, what one does need to worry about is taking action that is counterproductive and distorting things so that the registration-based system is essentially turned into an approval-based system due to local conditions.

You can try out this method yourself using the remaining plant-based expressions listed in the sign (I’ve provided the Chinese for you):

  1. “Surrendering with thorn stem” 負荊請罪
  2. “Cutting thorny bushes” 
  3. “Cutting willow and couch grass” Couldn’t find this one, so if anyone can help out let me know…

The sign also offers some interesting statistics on the occurrence of plants in idioms and their origins. Feel free to comment with anything that you’ve come across which has helped you in learning Chinese.


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