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Initiation Ceremony of the Chee Kung Tong secret society, San Francisco, ca. 1900.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Chinese practice


(wu4 yi3 lei4 ju4)

things congregate according to their nature

改革派作家威廉‧特納在其一五四五年諷刺天主教之作《The Rescuynge of the Romishe Fox》(拯救天主教狐狸)中,寫了這麼一句話:「Byrdes of on kynde and color flok and flye allwayes together」(同種類、同顏色的鳥,總是聚成一群、一起飛)。後來在一五九九年,英格蘭詞典編纂家約翰‧明舒所編的《西班牙語及英語辭典》中,則引用了一段文字:「Birdes of a feather will flocke togither」,這句話更接近現今所使用的英文諺語「Birds of a feather flock together」。由此可知,這個說法至少在十六世紀中葉就已為人所知,這隱喻當時就以這些類似的形式廣為使用。

從字面上看,「birds of a feather flock together」的意思是,同種的鳥類傾向聚成一群,反映出鳥類實際行為中的傾向;它所引伸出的意思,是指志趣相投的人傾向聚在一起。


中文成語「物以類聚」,字面意義為「事物依其類型而聚集在一起」,它的含義就不那麼中性了。此語原作「方以類聚」,「方」字有兩種解釋:可指「道」,或可能是「人」字的訛誤,而應為「人以類聚」(同類的人會聚集在一起)。這個成語和「birds of a feather flock together」的含義非常接近,但中文的「物以類聚」往往帶有負面的意涵,用來表示問題人物傾向於聚在一起、互相勾結。





(There’s a saying that goes “birds of a feather flock together.” If you want to know what kind of person he is, look at the friends he surrounds himself with.)


(All those gang members have a list of prior convictions as long as your arm. Talk about like attracts like, birds of a feather....)


birds of a feather flock together

In his 1545 papist satire The Rescuynge of the Romishe Fox (The Rescuing of Romish Fox), the reformist writer William Turner used the phrase: "Byrdes of on kynde and color flok and flye allwayes together" (birds of one kind and color always flock and fly together). This was followed in 1599 by a citation in the Dictionarie in Spanish and English compiled by the English lexicographer John Minsheu, which reads “Birdes of a feather will flocke togither,” a version closer to the proverb currently in use in English: “birds of a feather flock together.” The phrase, then, has been known since at least the mid-16th century, and the metaphor was widely used, in one version of the other, around that time.

Literally, “birds of a feather flock together” means that birds of the same species tend to form groups with each other, reflecting an actual behavioral tendency among birds; by extension, it refers to the propensity of people of like mind to congregate.

In usage, there is no suggestion that a negative meaning is implied, as would be the case were it to refer to thieves, or people with murderous tendencies, for example. It could just as likely refer to ambitious people, or to people with their heads in the clouds, or people with a passion for food.

The Chinese idiom, 物以類聚, literally “things group according to type,” is less neutral. Originally written as 方以類聚, where 方 has been interpreted either as meaning dao 道 (the Way) or as being a textual corruption of ren 人 (person), to give “人以類聚" (lit: people of a certain type group together), it is very close to the meaning of “birds of a feather...,” although the Chinese phrase does tend to carry a negative connotation, that is, people of questionable character tend to group together.

The phrase 方以類聚 originally appeared in the xici (Great Treatise) commentary of the ancient divination classic the yijing (Book of Changes), in the phrase 方以類聚,物以群分,吉凶生矣 (all people on Earth congregate according to kind; all things on Earth can be distinguished by how they group together. Things of a similar nature get together, and if these are good, then it is auspicious; if they are bad, then it is inauspicious. This is how the difference between the auspicious and the inauspicious was established.)

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