Chinese Language

Proverbs | 4

Gua yang tou mai gou rou : Hanging out a sheep's head to sell dog meat.

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Hanging out a sheep's head to sell dog meat

This must rank among the most frequently quoted folk sayings in the Chinese language, although it has a highly scholastic pedigree, dating back to the writings of a Buddhist of the Song dynasty, Wu Deng Hui Yuan by Pu Ji.

'I must never be mutton dressed as lamb'. Thus spake Premier Margaret Thatcher once on a BBC documentary entitled Englishwomen's Wardrobe. She could have said, 'I must never hang out a sheep's head to sell dog meat', although that would have introduced a far too Machiavellian note in a relatively harmless sartorial metaphor.

By way of elucidating the meaning of this expression, I would like to quote a passage from Mao Zedong's 'The Constitution of the New Democracy': 'The "constitution" bandied about on the lips of the reactionaries is a case in point. It is no more than "Gua yang tou, mai gou rou".' (The English translation' is my own.) By 'reactionaries', he was referring to supporters of the ancient regime under the pre-liberation leadership of KMT.

'Wolf in sheep's clothing' is one English proverb which springs to mind as a nearer match, but the big bad wolf is liable to gobble you up for breakfast, while dog meat can no more savage you than can a dead sheep, though it may give you a mild dose of indigestion.

The Queen in Shakespeare's King Henry VI (Part 11), who harboured an unworthy suspicion about Humphrey, the Duke of Gloucester, because of his ambitious wife's intrigues, expressed her apprehensions in the following words: Is he a lamb? His skin is surely lent him, For he's inclined as is the ravenous wolf. (Act III, Scene 1, lines 77-8) Presumably Shakespeare was linking the fable to a Biblical quotation: Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. (Matthew 7, 15)

So 'wolf in sheep's clothing' is not a phrase to be equated with the Chinese 'Gua yang tou mai gou rou' either. Perhaps the nearest parallel to this Chinese saying in the English language is: 'He cries wine and sells vinegar'.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2001 reprinted from SACU's China Now 128, March 1989

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