Mon, Sep 11, 2017 - Page 9 News List


Portrait of Chan monk, thought to be Chan Buddhist master Mazu Daoyi, by Kanzan Shimomura (1873-1930) in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Chinese Practice


(nong4 qiao3 cheng2 zhuo1)

Attempting to be clever, but appearing foolish


這段話的背景是在古中國唐代,但若龐居士說的是現代英語,他便會說「I was trying to be too clever by half, and ended up getting egg on my face.」(我自以為聰明想要賣弄,結果卻落得狼狽不堪)。

「Too clever by half」和「getting egg on your face」這兩個片語皆頗耐人尋味。聰明畢竟應是件好事——那麼我們有可能會嫌自己太過聰明嗎?又憑什麼來衡量何謂一倍半太過的聰明?這句話的意思顯然是用來諷刺,並意味若你想要顯示自己的聰明的話是不會成功的,而且最後反而會顯得愚蠢。「Getting egg on your face」(你臉上有蛋)也有類似的意義——如果你想要做超出自己能力的事,最後只會讓你自己顯得愚蠢。



(I thought I’d take a shortcut by climbing over the wall, and went head over heels. I was being too clever by half.)


(This policy actually makes a lot of sense, but it was executed in a ham-fisted way and created all kinds of problems.)


Egg on your face

Too clever by half

The Chinese idiom 弄巧成拙 is actually taken directly from an account of a conversation between a Chan Buddhist lay disciple, the Layman Pang (740–808AD), and Chan Buddhist master, Mazu Daoyi (709–788AD) recorded in the Compendium of the Five Lamp Records. In the exchange, Pang attempts to impress the Chan master, but Mazu responds only by lowering and raising his eyes, indicating that Pang still had much to understand. It ends with Pang desisting, and saying to himself 適來弄巧成拙: “I thought I would try to show off my skill, but I only succeeded in looking foolish.”

That exchange happened in Tang China. Had the Layman Pang been speaking in modern colloquial English, he might have said something like, “I was trying to be too clever by half, and ended up getting egg on my face.”

The phrases “too clever by half” and “getting egg on your face” are both quite curious. Being clever, after all, is supposed to be a good thing: Is it really possible to be “too” clever? And what does it mean to measure the extent of your surplus cleverness by saying that it is half as much again? Clearly, the phrase is supposed to be sarcastic, and suggests that if you were trying to be clever then you didn’t succeed, and by extension ended up looking foolish. Getting egg on your face, too, has this meaning: that you somehow fumble in an attempt, and succeed only in making yourself look stupid.

(Paul Cooper, Taipei Times)

If it goes well, people will be impressed. If it goes badly, you’ll end up with egg on your face.


I thought I’d save myself some time, but I was too clever by half. In the end I spent ages sorting out the mess.


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