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Why is it 吃醋 but not anything else?

Daniel ZHPY


吃醋(chī cù), literally meaning "drinking vinegar", is commonly used as an idiomatic phrase to say a person being jealous because someone close (usually a lover or sometimes a family member) to him/her is having pleasant interactions with a third party. In today's society in China, 吃醋 within an appropriate range is often considered as a sign of affection and love. If a girl "drinks vinegar" when spotting her boyfriend interact pleasantly with another girl, the general opinion will point out that the girl is taking the relationship seriously with quite some care and values the accompany of the boy. However, have you ever wondered, why is jealousy related to vinegar but not other things? Well, there're several stories and each of them is quite interesting. Now let's take a look at those "vinegar stories"!


  • Story of the Lion's Roar: 

There was an emperor of the Ming Dynasty who kept two lions in his palace. And according to some historical recordings, he fed the lions with two bottles of vinegar per day. But how's a lion fed with vinegar related to jealousy? There's another story called "the lion's roar from the east of the river". Su Shi (苏轼), one of the greatest poets in China's history, who lived in the Song Dynasty, had a friend called Chen Jichang (陈季常) who had married a very jealous wife. When Chen Jichang treated his guests to a meal with geisha girls accompanying, the wife would tap the wall with a wooden stick and insult the guests to force them leave. Since Chen Jichang was a Buddhist, Su Shi used "lion's roar" which was a terminology in Buddhism for the solemn voice of the Buddha to teasingly  describe the wife's angry voice while insulting the guests. He wrote in one poem that 忽闻河东狮子吼,拄仗落手心茫然, which means "suddenly hearing the lion's roar from the east of the river, his stick fell off his hand with his heart in chaos." From then on, "lion's roar" was used to refer to a jealous wife, and hence "drinking vinegar", which is related to a lion, became a phrase for jealousy.


  • Story of the Vinegar That Has Gone Bad:

This one needs a bit of background information to understand. In ancient China, it was legal for a man to have several wives. Back to the main topic, in some southern areas in China, people thought it was unsuitable for a family to make two jars of vinegar at the same time as one of them must go bad over time without being consumed. This was then used to connote the belief that a man shouldn't marry more than one wife or disharmony would be created among family members. Therefore, some people in Qing Dynasty thought that this could be the origin of 吃醋.


  • Sour Taste Theory

In ancient China, vinegar was the main ingredient to add sour taste to the food. Hence the meaning of vinegar was extended to "sour", which could refer to a painful emotion sometimes. So people related 吃醋 to jealousy to express a feeling of bitterness.


  • Story of Fang Xuanling's Wife

So far, this is the story acknowledged and believed by most of people for the origin of 吃醋. Fang Xuanling (房玄龄) was one of the Prime Ministers in the Tang Dynasty during the reign of Li Shimin (李世民), who was probably the most highly esteemed and the greatest (well at least in my personal opinion) emperor in China's history. To award Fang's great contribution in helping him win the throne, the emperor wanted to send a beauty to him but declined for several times. The emperor then heard that Fang's wife was very jealous, so he told his queen to negotiate with the wife. However, all the attempts had failed. So the emperor went angry, and acclaimed that if she didn't give in, the only solution was to have herself executed. The wife insisted and claimed she would be willing to die. The emperor commanded his servant to get a goblet of poisonous wine and told the wife, "if you mean it, drink up this goblet of poisonous wine." The wife, without hesitation, took the goblet of wine and drained it with one gulp. In fact, however, the wine was not actually poisoned. After that, the emperor gave up awarding Fang with the beauty and remarked, "even I am afraid to see her, no wonder Fang Xuanling would be so!"


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