Written by Dr. Jennifer Lau, under the supervision of Dr. Gaoheng Zhang.
Gold has been perceived as a measure of wealth for centuries. English idioms involving gold often describe good character, such as “to have a heart of gold,” or certainty, such as “as good as gold.” Gold is also used as a metaphor of money and wealth in phrases such as “a gold mine” or “black gold” (referring to oil) in English. Many Chinese idioms and phrases also refer to gold as a metaphor for wealth. But there are many more dynamic uses of the concept of gold such as royalty, honesty, and loyalty, which are worth exploring.
To start, Chinese phrases and idioms use gold to indicate wealth and prestige in relation to one’s family. While gold is often used to represent wealth in English idioms as well, in Chinese we find that it is commonly associated with the home or a house that represents the reputation of a family. Chinese examples that use gold to represent wealth and status include the phrases Jin yu man tang 金玉滿堂 [lit. Gold and jade fill one’s home] to describe one’s extreme wealth, which comes from an ancient philosopher and writer, Laozi (~6th-4th century BCE), and Jin men xiu hu 金门绣户 [lit. Golden door, embroidered household] to describe a wealthy family, which was first used in one of China’s four classic novels, Dream of the Red Chamber from 1791. In another idiom, which in the beginning pointed literally to the beauty of nature in a Tang dynasty (618-907) poem, came to refer to the descendants of the royal family later on: Jin zhi yu ye 金枝玉叶 [lit. golden branches, jade leaves]. In our contemporary moment, some use this phrase to describe those born in wealth or with a silver spoon in their mouth!
Because of the association of gold with the figure of emperor in Chinese culture, there is another rich layer of understanding when the character “gold” is used in relation to imperial architecture. This is especially apparent in idioms and phrases describing architecture that was originally only applicable to palaces and the court, such as Jin bi hui huang 金碧辉煌 [lit. Gold green bright/splendid], which describes architectural structures that are beautiful, elevated, and outstanding (mostly for the spaces within the imperial palace) and Yu lou jin que 玉楼金阙 [lit. Jade building gold tower] which describes the elegance and craftsmanship of the imperial palace.
Akin to the English idioms that describe honest and noble character using gold, Chinese literature also highlights the strength of gold to adjudicate one’s character and one’s relationships. Gold describes resilience and determination at times, and at others, gold points to the strength of one’s friendships. In other words, as one of the strongest metals found in nature, gold represents the quality of someone or something in both languages. Illustrations of this in Chinese include:
- Zhen jin lie huo 真金烈火 [lit. Real gold, strong fire] to point to the resilience of one’s character in facing trials as gold can endure a strong fire. The origins of this phrase date back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) from 徐渭 Xu Wei’s Fourth Cry of the Monkey where it describes how it is not boasting to say that one is unafraid of real fire like how a red lotus will remain even in murky waters.《四声猿．雌木兰替父从军．第二出》：「非自奖真金烈火，傥好比浊水红莲。」
- Jin shi zhi jiao 金石之交 [lit. Friendship of golden stone] represents a close friendship that is as strong as gold. This was first used in 200 BCE by a Chinese poet named Ji Ruan.
- Xin ru jin shi 心如金石 [lit. Heart like gold stone] means that one’s intention is unshakable and that someone is full of determination. It comes from the Book of the Later Han, which describes the unshakable loyalty of one’s family to the emperor《后汉书·王常传》：“此家率下江诸将辅翼汉室，心如金石，真忠臣也。”
Lastly, the Chinese have a fascinating view of gold concerning the weight of words. Words are as precious as gold. A Qing-dynasty story gives birth to a phrase that one’s promise must be kept qian jin yi nuo 千金一诺 [lit. Thousand gold one promise] — similar to the phrase “your word is gold” in English. However, compared to English idioms and phrases, there are many more associations of gold and its significance to writing and communication in Chinese:
- In Tang poet Du Fu’s work, he describes letters from family as being worth more than thousands of pieces of gold: “家書抵萬金”. These letters can be especially precious if one is away from family. This phrase has been used by subsequent Chinese poets, such as modern literary giant, Guo Moruo.
- From a Yuan drama The Western Chamber comes a phrase jin yu liang yan 金玉良言 [lit. Gold jade good word]. This describes a word of advice that is as worthy and valuable as gold and jade. The advice therefore should be taken to heart.
- The Records of the Grand Historian, the most influential historical archive of the early dynasties of the Chinese empire, coins a phrase about a well-composed word. The idiom yi zi qian jin 一字千金 [lit. one character thousand gold] means that to add or take away a word is not necessary as the message itself is perfectly delivered as it stands.
- To add to someone’s writing and ruin it is also captured in a Chinese idiom: dian jin cheng tie 點金成鐵 [lit. touch gold transform iron]. This figure of speech indicates that the existing piece is already beautiful and is worthy of gold. And any changes to the text would make it lose its original beauty.
- Lastly, for the learned scholar, a Chinese phrase that describes the immense weight of one’s words is xi mo ru jin 惜墨如金 [lit. borrow ink like gold]. This means that one should have control of one’s use of ink and brush. In other words, the writer should only put ‘brush’ to paper when thought has been given.
These are illustrations of the many ways in which the Chinese language plays with the idea of gold and value in ways that are unique to the culture. Gold was used by conventions to refer to the imperial family and architecture, as well as to writing and to the cultivation of one’s own character.