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Slow Chinese 每周漫闻 is an entertaining weekly dose of interesting words, phrases and idioms from the week’s news for learners of Chinese who want to take their language skills to the next level.
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An idiom and two poems about hearing what hasn’t been said – 弦外之音 (xián wài zhī yīn)1 min read

29 March 2021 < 1 min read

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An idiom and two poems about hearing what hasn’t been said – 弦外之音 (xián wài zhī yīn)1 min read

Reading Time: < 1 minute

I heard a speech recently that compared two poems, one in English by Shelley, one in Chinese by Liu Chenweng, to draw similarities of feelings of spring approaching.

A comparison of two lines of poetry, though, reveals an interesting difference in how Chinese and English are used to look to the future.

Shelley’s, Ode to the West Wind from 1820:

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

And from Song Dynasty poet, Liu Chenweng (刘晨翁), from 300 years earlier:

郊岭风追残雪去,坳溪水送破冰来 (jiāo lǐng fēng zhuī cán xuě qù , ào xī shuǐ sòng pò bīng lái )

Which roughly translates as:

A breeze in the hills melts the snow,

Fresh water in the brook shatters the ice.

What’s a difference between the two poems? In the Chinese poem there is no reference to the spring.

…Can spring be far behind?

It should come at the end, but it doesn’t. It’s implied, left to the audience to make the connection through signals and symbolism.

Symbolism is a part of the Chinese language.

Shelley is is; winter is here, and spring must not far away.

But the Chinese poet simply hints, using subtle signals of change to make exactly the same point. In Chinese there’s even an idiom for it:

弦外之音 (xián wài zhī yīn)

“Sound outside of the strings”

This was first written by the Chinese historian Fan Ye (范晔), who lived from AD 398 to 445.

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