Not the monkey’s paw; that’s very different

A new semester will be beginning soon. (Wish me luck in keeping up with my posting schedule!) Recently I went to a welcome lunch for the new Masters students in our department. One, from China, told me about a Chinese four-character compound, 火中取栗 (“huŏ zhōng qŭ lì”; it would probably be rendered ka.chuu.shu.ri in Japanese). He told me that it referred to some reward or profit made all the sweeter by having gone through difficulty or danger to get it. (If a speaker of Chinese would like to comment, I’d love to hear your thoughts.)

I went home and immediately looked for a Japanese version. Many yojijukugo come from Chinese, after all, and I thought I could use it on a coming Wednesday. Alas, if the compound is ever used in Japanese, it’s too obscure to show up in any of my sources. Google just gave me pages and pages of results in Chinese. I did find the following longer phrase, though:

火中の栗を拾う
(Kachuu no kuri wo hirou; “To pick a chestnut out of the fire.”)

Definition:

Doing someone’s dirty work for them, without personal benefit or reward. Taking risks while someone else gets all the profit. Going out of your way, putting yourself in danger, or otherwise taking on an unwelcome task because you were tricked or cajoled into it by the person who actually stands to gain. Being someone’s catspaw, as discussed below.

Breakdown:

火中 (kachuu) is a compound of “fire” and “middle” and, as you’d expect, means “in(side) [a] fire.” (kuri) is a nut, specifically the Japanese chestnut. Here the associative particle is giving 火中an adjectival or descriptive function: “an in-a-fire chestnut.” The noun phrase is tagged with the object marker and acted upon by the verb 拾う (hirou), “to pick up.” Note that while I rendered the phrase above as a nut, singular, the Japanese doesn’t specify number, so “chestnuts” would be equally acceptable.

Notes:

Imagine my surprise and mild dismay when I discovered that the Japanese saying is derived from the French, specifically from La Fontaine’s “The Monkey and the Cat.” I said early on in this project that I didn’t want to use sayings that had been imported into Japanese from English. It can be nice to know that they are available for use, but I’d prefer to learn, and share, about Japanese rather than about my native tongue in these posts.

That said, while English has also inherited the term “cat’s paw” from the same source, I felt that circumstances justify the inclusion of 火中の栗… in this series. It’s significantly different from the English, for one thing, and comes from a non-English source. It would be somewhat inconsistent to reject French while cheerfully accepting Chinese-origin phrases.

Example sentence:

「部長に頼むなら、やはり自分で言ってごらん。俺がすると、なんか火中の栗を拾うような感じだ」

(“Buchou ni tanomu nara, yahari jibun de itte goran. Ore ga suru to, nanka kachuu no kuri wo hirou you na kanji da.”)

[“If you need to ask the department head, then you’d better try talking to him yourself. If I did it, I get the feeling I’d just be your catspaw.”]

About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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