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Xiehouyu (simplified Chinese: 歇后语; traditional Chinese: 歇後語; pinyin: xiēhòuyǔ; Wade–Giles: hsieh1-hou4-yü3; literally: "a saying with the latter-part suspended") is a kind of Chinese proverb consisting of two elements: the former segment presents a novel scenario while the latter provides the rationale thereof. One would often only state the first part, expecting the listener to know the second. Compare English "a stitch in time (saves nine)" or "a bird in the hand (is worth two in the bush)".

Pun is sometimes invoked in a xiehouyu. In this case the second part is derived from the first through one meaning, but then another possible meaning of the second part is taken as the true meaning. To create examples in English, one can say "get hospitalized" to mean "be patient", or "small transactions only" to mean "no big deal". Thus a xiehouyu in one dialect can be unintelligible to a listener speaking another. Valuable linguistic data can sometimes be gleaned from ancient xiehouyu.


  • 外甥打燈籠——照舅 (舊) / 外甥打灯笼——照舅 (旧)
    • pinyin: wàishēng dǎ dēnglong—zhào jiù (jiù)
    • translation: nephew handling [a] lantern - illuminating/according to [his] uncle ([the] old [way])
    • gloss: as usual, as before
    • Note: 舅 and 舊/旧 are a pair of homophones, and 照 means "according to" as well as "to illuminate"
  • 皇帝的女兒——不愁嫁 /皇帝的女儿——不愁嫁
    • pinyin: huángdì de nǚér—bù chóu jià
    • translation: the daughter of the emperor—need not worry that she cannot soon be wed
    • gloss: someone or something that is always wanted


  • Rohsenow, John Snowden. A Chinese-English dictionary of enigmatic folk similes (xiēhòuyǔ). Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991.
  • Zhongguo da baike quanshu. First Edition. Beijing; Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe. 1980-1993.

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