An autumn all the more lovely for being free of raiders from the north

This isn’t a kotowaza in the normal sense of an adage or precept; it’s just an expression. But I’ve loved it since I learned it, and thought I’d take this opportunity to share.

天高く馬肥ゆる秋
(Ten takaku uma koyuru aki; “High-heavened, horse-fattening fall”)

Definition:

Just what it says on the tin: this noun phrase describes a pleasant fall weather, characterized by high, clear skies under which, presumably, horses can freely roam their pastures and fatten themselves on long autumn grasses. Alternately, a poetic way to sing the praises of autumn in general, as represented by this kind of weather.

Breakdown:

The noun (here ten, but in on its own ama) is a very old term for the sky, with a connotation both of the sky as residence of various gods and of reference to the imperial throne. 高い (takai) is the adjective “high (up),” here in conjunctive form, meaning that it connects to the following phrase without modifying it directly. Next we have a verb phrase comprising the object (uma), “horse,” and the verb 肥ゆ (koyu) in prenominal form. As this form indicates, all of the above acts as modifier for the final noun (aki), “autumn,” making the entire expression into a compact and lyrical noun phrase.

It pleases me deeply that I was able to make an English translation capturing some of the sense of alliteration and rhythm that the original gave me (even if alliteration is nowhere near as important in Japanese as it is in English).

Notes:

Certain kinds of correspondence in Japan employ set seasonal phrases – I saw a lot of them in newsletters and PTA reports and so on when I was teaching there – and this is one such seasonal phrase. I would recommend checking usage carefully before throwing it into your own correspondence, especially in this age of relatively casual online interaction, but it can be used to express the wish that someone is enjoying good weather for the season.

Apparently some people mistakenly use 越ゆる instead of 肥ゆる. This strikes me as an error more likely arising from computerized auto-kanji rather than human error, since “an autumn that goes beyond a horse” makes very little sense.

The origins of this phrase are fascinating. Apparently it comes to us in our current form from the poetry of Du Shenyan, but that it comes from a warning passed down in parts of what is now China about harvest-time raids by the horse-riding Xiongnu people. Eventually the Xiongnu raiding threat disappeared, and the phrase took on its current usage of simply praising pleasant fall weather.

There are two yojijukugo forms of the same expression, 天高馬肥 (ten.kou.ba.hi) and 秋高馬肥 (shuu.kou.ba.hi). They won’t be getting their own Wednesday posts, but I thought I’d mention them in passing.

Example sentence:
(this week, taken directly from an online example rather than created by yours truly)

天高く馬肥ゆる秋、皆様にはますますご壮健のことと拝察いたします。」

(Ten takaku uma koyuru aki, minna-sama ni wa masu masu gosouken no koto to haisatsu itashimasu.”)

[“In this high-heavened horse-fattening fall, I humbly presume that my letter finds you all in better health than ever.”]

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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