I know. I know. I am a couple of days behind. By now everyone has already wished you a happy Chinese New Year and sent horses packed with good fortune your way. You’re probably trying to get some well deserved rest before the break is over and life resumes full speed, but your ears are tired of hearing explosions and car alarms, and you’re quite certain hell doesn’t smell as sulfuric as your neighborhood at the moment. But hear me out. I know I am late, but it’s for a good reason. In fact, it’s exactly the point I am trying to make.
Every Chinese New Year has a blessing which is usually a play on words with the corresponding zodiac sign. The classic example off course is Happy Niu Year(牛 – niú – cow) for the year of the ox. Since it’s a 12 year cycle by the time the pun is reused it feels brand new and original. For the year of the horse the expression of choice is 马上 (mǎ shàng).
If you break it down to individual characters 马上 means on (上) the horse (马) but combine the two together and you got the Chinese word for immediately or at once. When you say 我马上来 (wǒ mǎ shàng lái) it doesn’t mean you gave up cars for some reasons, but rather that you’ll be there any minute. So this year a common greeting would be 马上有钱 (mǎ shàng yǒu qián) to wish people to make money this year. Another poplar one is 马上有对象 (mǎ shàng yǒu duì xiàng) which you say to single people in order to wish that they will find their significant other this year. You can use this to wish pretty much anything, you get the picture.
I am not a big fan of the word mǎ shàng. Strike that. There’s nothing wrong with this word and I kinda like its figurative nature. It’s just that it is a constant reminder of what wrong with our modern society. Today everything has to be “on the horse”. The pace of our life is so fast and everything is a race. We try so hard to be first that we forget at the end it’s all just a big circle. That’s why instead of “on the horse” I want to talk about a different “equine” expression:
走马看花 – zǒu mǎ kàn huā
This is a chengyu which literally means watching (看) flowers (花) while riding (走) a horse (马). A common variation is 走马观(guān)花.
Initially this expression meant all is well, everything is great or life is beautiful. Its origin apparently lies in a couple of lines of a Tang Dynasty poem by Mengjiao in which he expressed his joy after he had finally passed the official imperial examination. Later on a new meaning was assigned to it and today it’s mostly used to imply superficial understanding gained through cursory observation, skimming the surface or even making snap judgment based on inadequate information. Like any other chengyu this one also has a story, which goes like this:
There once was a young lad named Gui Liang who was a cripple. He wanted to marry a beautiful girl, so he asked his resourceful friend, Hua Han, to be his matchmaker. A young girl also approached Hua Han and asked him to serve as her go-between. The girl’s name was Ye Qing. She had an ugly nose, but she wanted to marry a handsome young man. The matchmaker decided these two would make a fitting couple and resolved to arrange a match. He told Gui Liang, the crippled young lad, to ride on horseback past Ye Qing’s home. He asked Ye Qing, the ugly nosed girl, to stand by the road and hold a bouquet of flowers to cover her nose. After the meeting, the two young people were satisfied with what they saw. Gui Liang was intrigued with the girl and her elegant gesture of modesty. He murmured, “How beautiful she is! This is the very woman I want to marry.” Ye Qing was ecstatic to see the young man riding so high in the saddle, carrying himself as if he were a general. She said to herself, “This is the very man I want to marry!” This unusual story has a happy ending. The satisfied young man and woman were soon married and lived together happily.
The text above was taken from CRI-ENGLISH Webcast. You could think of it as a story of people who miss important details or you can regard this as a tale about people who choose to focus on the beauty of things.
No matter how you view this expression, now that you know it, I would like to wish you a year which is not “on the horse”. A year in which you will have many opportunities to walk alongside your horse instead of riding it frantically. A year of noticing hidden beauty in yourself and in others. A year of observation, appreciation and participation.
Happy New Year!