A proverb (yanyu) is a kind of simple, concise, and vivid short line or rhyming phrase with set forms. It is a member of the idiom family. An idiom is a supreme concept in logic while a proverb is a subordinate concept. In broad outline, the idiom family includes set phrases, conventionalized phrases, proverbs, and two-part enigmatic sayings. Therefore, if we talk about the features of proverbs, we would have to mention the features that all idioms share, but also the features that proverbs have which are different from other idioms.
What a proverb reflects has a close relationship with the society from which it emerged and its social and cultural circumstances. Generally speaking, the humanism of a proverb is reflected in three aspects: material culture, social customs, and spiritual culture.
The basic characteristic of the language of a proverb is its colloquialism. The language style of a proverb expresses meanings in usage and structure in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. A proverb makes heavy use of a variety of rhetorical devices, such as analogy, metonymy, personification, hyperbole, punning, contrast, antithesis, anadiplosis, repetitions, circumlocution, and parallelism. Proverbs are nothing other than a dictionary of rhetoric phrases.
A large and complex group within the idiom family, proverbs are divided into different groups and classified in various ways. According to time, proverbs can be divided into “old proverbs” and “new proverbs”; according to region, they can be divided into “common proverbs” and “regional proverbs”; according to origin, they can be divided into “agricultural proverbs” and “regular proverbs”; according to the nature and functionality of the language, they can be divided into “satirical and eulogistic proverbs,” “admonitory proverbs,” “reasoning proverbs,” “production proverbs,” ‘weather proverbs” “custom proverbs,” and “common sense proverbs.”
From a linguistic point of view, a proverb by itself is a phrase, a short sentence, or a combination of phrases and short sentences. When a proverb stands by itself, its structures can be categorized as simple sentences, couplets, and complex sentences.
The word xiehou or enigmatic sayings first appears in the tenth century Jiu Tang shu (Old history of the Tang). In different time periods, xiehou have had different contents. In the earlier times these enigmatic sayings are just abbreviated versions of set phrases and sentences. Nowadays, xiehou retain the old name xiehou but they are quite different from those of the past in being more complex.
The xiehou or enigmatic saying of today is a two-part phrase or sentence. The former part is normally an analogy or statement, while the latter part is an explanation or result. This two-part language structure is both ambiguous and humorous, and simple and meaningful. It is like a riddle: the first part is equivalent to a question while the second part is equivalent to an answer. If the second part is unexpressed, the first part is similar to the riddle and analogy. However, xiehou sayings are related to the riddle and analogy, but are different from then.
The two parts of a xiehou are connected in three different ways: First, their relationship is quite straightforward; second, the latter part explains the former part only indirectly, as there is a slight play on words; third, the second part not only explains the first part, but also serves as a pun. For the first two kinds, no matter whether the xiehou is straightforward or not, it is connected only by meaning. Therefore, those kinds are called xiehou of implication. For the third kind, there is an additional pronunciation shift, so those are called xiehou of homophony.
The humor and tactfulness of xiehou have a special power. There is a great sarcastic effect when these sayings are used to expose hypocrisy and wrongdoing. However, so as to preserve their impact, they should be used selectively and sparingly.