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Chinese Idioms Translated – Telling Someone to Shove It

Chinese idioms – there are so many to choose from. In celebration of a long-awaited Friday, I thought it might be fun to teach ya’ll a little Chinese. If you enjoy this kind of thing, maybe we can do it more often.

This won’t be a Chinese lesson—not in the grammatical and learn-new-vocabulary sense. Rather, I wanted to share the history behind an interesting phrase. For those who aren’t familiar with the Chinese language, it’s uniquely possessed of many, many metaphorical idioms (often consisting of four characters) that derive from ancient stories and literature. Everyday conversations are literally teeming with these sayings, which often offer concise insight into a common experience or situation.

The phrase I’d like to focus on today is 马后炮 (mă hòu pào), which literally means “a canon behind the horse.” In colloquial use, when you tell someone not to canon-behind-the-horse you, it means that an incident has already occurred. You can’t change it, so there’s no use bringing it up. This phrase is especially useful when responding to I-told-you-so situations in which someone scolds you, or offers a post hoc solution to something that has already happened, and is thereby unavoidable.

Chinese Idioms Translated

But what does this have to do with horses and canons? Oddly enough, the phrase comes from Chinese Chess. Here’s some quick background information:

Canons in Chinese Chess are similar to Rooks in Western Chess. Their movements are essentially the same, with the single exception that they must “jump” over another piece in order to capture an enemy. If you think about it, it makes sense—it’s a canon, so there’s got to be some shootin’ over people’s heads, right?

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Horses, like Knights in Western Chess, have a similar L-shaped movement. Instead of moving two squares in one direction, then one square in a perpendicular direction, however, Horses in Chinese Chess can move horizontally or vertically one square in any direction, then diagonally one square in a direction opposite of the their original position.

In any case, when playing Chinese Chess, if you place a Horse in front of the enemy’s General (their equivalent of the King), and place your Canon behind the Horse, then you’ve essentially achieved a water-tight checkmate. The enemy’s General will be killed no matter where he moves. Here’s a graphical depiction of the arrangement:

Picture depicting the "ma hou pao" checkmate position in Chinese Chess.

Basically, if your General’s in this position, you’re pretty much dead—S.O.L., as they say in Ancient China. And, at that point, there’s nothing you can do to save yourself: it’s futile to fight it, regret it, or complain about it.

So next time you drop something and break it, and standers-by oh-so-helpfully note that you should have been more careful, you can tell them to shut their yappers, ‘cause the canon’s already behind the horse, and that’s just how it is. Got any phrases like this in your language?

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  1. In English, I think the phrase is “No use crying over spilt milk.”

  2. Very useful expression!
    Honestly, I think I can use it at least once a day…not because I am a clumsy person, but because I am surrounded by people who likes to make some useless remark afterward! (well, I am little clumsy though…just a little).
    In French, I would say “Ooooh, mais c’est bon!!! c’est deja fait, pas besoin d’en rajouteeeeer!!!!” which means “oooh, leave me alone!!! it’s already done, so no need to mention it agaaaiiin!”. Pay attention to the exclamation mark, because French are a little grumpy.

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