Given this forthcoming Chinese New Year, which falls on January 31st, is the year of the horse, we continue on the horse theme to discuss another often used idiom in China.
Mǎma-hūhū (马马虎虎) literally means horse horse tiger tiger. However despite its bizarre literal translation this commonly used idiom has two main meanings: careless or casual and so so.
There are several explanations as to how the phrase came about, but one popular story describes a painter whose style was somewhat confusing. It is said that the artist once drew the head of a tiger and when a man asked him to draw a horse he simply added the body of the horse to the tiger head he’d already painted. The customer did not like it and left and the painting was hung in the family living room.
When the artist’s elder son saw the painting he was told it was a tiger, but he told his younger son it was just a horse. However this led to the painter having to pay out a lot of money in compensation after his elder son shot an expensive horse thinking it was a tiger. Later his younger was killed after he attempted to ride a tiger, believing it to be a horse.
Thus the sloppy efforts of the painter had cost him his son and a lot of money and so, it is said, the phrase mǎma-hūhū was born to describe something as just so-so, like the artist’s painting.
If you are asked to comment on something you do not really like or that you think is neither good or bad, you could thus describe it as “mǎma-hūhū”. You will surely impress your Chinese friends with your ability of using this colloquial phrase.
Here is one example where the phrase could be used: “This restaurant’s food is just so-so” - zhè jiā cān guăn de caì măma-hūhū (这家餐馆的菜马马虎虎).