My wife insisted it was a mission of grave importance; she had to have the document notarized. So, we’d trundled into a taxi, fighting hopelessly-clogged city traffic to the closest Beijing government office.

My wife, her mother, and me.

The notary place was packed. Overrun. Picture the anxious crowd at any state Department of Motor Vehicles office on a very hellacious day.

Then square it.

We were given a ticket with a number that suggested we might be called sometime within the next century. Suddenly, my wife frantically began checking her purse and pockets.

No, she couldn’t have, but she did: She’d forgotten the document she needed notarized.

Her mother let out a little gasp.

“Don’t tell John,” she said.

But, of course, she did. I rolled my eyes and glanced over at my mother-in-law, who gestured toward her daughter and uttered an ancient, wonderfully-subtle insult for my benefit.

Er bai wu,” she said.


Simpleton. Fool.

The phrase, which dates back to ancient China, has a monetary genus. Copper coins were once strung together through square holes in the center to create a unit of currency called a diao.

Modest scholars who humbly deprecated their expertise referred to themselves as “ban diao zi,” or “half a diao.” Somehow along the way, the number 250, meaning “a quarter of a diao,” became an insult.

I winked at my mother-in-law.

Yes, of course. That’s what she is!

In a culture with 5,000 years to perfect its punchlines, insults can sting.

Proverbs have long been used here to teach children good manners and to help them make the right choices in life. The Chinese language, with literally thousands of characters, both complex and simplified, can be lyrical, poignant and humorous; even Shakespearean in its beauty.

During the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao supposedly once pontificated on the importance of both sexes in Chinese culture, saying “Women hold up half the sky.”

Later, leader Deng Xiaoping made the point that even an untrustworthy political ally served a purpose. “Black cat or white cat,” he said, “if it can catch mice, it’s a good cat.”

Sometimes, Chinese proverbs have an American corollary. To “kill the goose that lays golden egg,” is to “drain the pond to catch the fish.” And the concept of overkill is expressed as, “Don’t remove a fly from a friend’s forehead with a hatchet.”

The concept of beauty being in the eyes of the beholder is expressed as, “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”

Other proverbs, I presume, are uniquely Chinese. If there is a Western equivalent, I’ve never heard them.

Gorgeous woman, for example, are “dazzling enough to make the fish drown and the geese fall from the sky.”

One mystery goes: “A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.”

Another: “One who does not like to read is equal to one who cannot read.” And another: Better to drink the weak tea of a friend than the sweet wine of an enemy.”

And my favorite, about life-long love: “Married couples tell each other a thousand things without talking.”

Some sayings are oddly funny: “Experience is a comb we receive just when we are going bald.” A husband who is jealous of another man flirting with his wife is said to “eat vinegar.” And “a loan is like rice eaten; it is soon forgotten.”

Many are philosophical: “To know the road ahead, ask those coming back,” goes one. And, “Dangerous enemies will meet again in narrow streets.” And, “Be not afraid of growing slowly, only of standing still.”

My wife often wields proverbs like weapons. When I’m head strong, I “bloody my nose on the south wall,” not knowing when to stop. To predict someone’s failure is to speak with a “black crow mouth.”

When I’ve carelessly belittled someone, she’ll shake her finger and say, “You can’t get ivory from a dog’s mouth.” So, consider the source.

Chinese translations for Western concepts can be things of beauty. The phrase for marijuana, for example, is “da ma,” or “the big numb.”

Now, how cool is that?

Yet my favorite utterances, by far, are curses, the phrases that fledgling language students like me grasp for first. I learned most of my bad words from my wife’s younger brother.

As a rule, Chinese profanity usually consists of sexual references or scorn of one’s ancestors, especially a mother. A mother or grandmother are said to be promiscuous, likened to a public bus or yellow cab, easy to ride. Others are accused of not even being human.

And you never want to be called a turtle, which carries a phallic image of a turtle’s head poking out of the water. Being called a “turtle’s son” dates back 1,000 years to the Song Dynasty. Eggs aren’t good, either; a “bad egg” describes a troublemaker, or hooligan.

Some particularly-nasty curses include “Damning 18 generations of your family” or proclaiming, “May your child be born with hemorrhoids.” There’s even a special insult for an older worker who refuses to die, or retire, clogging up the ladder to promotion.

A braggart “blows air into a cow’s vagina,” a flatterer is a “horse fart” and a flat-chested woman is compared to an airport runway.

Beijing has its own curses, which my brother-in-law quickly taught me. You call someone a “grandson” and tell them to “Go visit your grandmother” or the even more ludicrous, “Go see your second uncle.”

I’ve lost count of how many times my wife has dismissed me as a “hutong tranzi,” an ill-mannered gossip who hangs out in the alley, or “liumang,” a scoundrel or pervert.

So, you see, that day at the notary office, my mother-in-law possessed a wide choice of gentle put-downs for her forgetful daughter.

“Two-hundred-fifty” wasn’t that bad.

I would have thought of something worse, but then, there’s something else to consider here.

You can’t get ivory from a dog’s mouth.

Former Big City Journalist turned Sojourner