The Three Little Pigs

The Three Little Pigs are in the news all over the place.  First, just in case you don't know the story, here is the story of the Three Little Pigs in Wikipedia:

Mother Pig sends her three little piglets out into the world to live on their own.

The first little pig builds a house of straw, but a wolf blows it down and eats the pig. The encounter between wolf and pig features ringing proverbial phrases:

One day the big bad wolf came and knocked on the first little pig's door and said, "Little pig, little pig, let me come in." And the little pig answered, "No, no, I won't let you come in, not by the hair on my chinny chin chin." "Well," said the wolf, "then I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house in." So he huffed and he puffed and he blew the house down and ate the little pig.

The second pig builds a house of sticks, has the same conversation with the wolf, and meets the same fate.

The third pig builds a house of brick. The wolf cannot huff and puff hard enough to blow the house down. He attempts to trick the third little pig out of his house, but the pig outsmarts him at every turn. Finally, the wolf threatens to come down the chimney, whereupon the third little pig boils a pot of water into which the wolf plunges. The little pig cooks the wolf and eats him.


Four-character idioms, or chéngyǔ (成語) are a set of traditional idiomatic expressions, each of which consists of four Chinese characters. Chengyu were widely used in Classical Chinese and are still common in Vernacular Chinese writing and Spoken Chinese today. According to the most stringent definition, there are about 5,000 chengyu in the Chinese language, though some dictionaries list over 20,000.

Chengyu are mostly derived from ancient literature. The meaning of a chengyu usually surpasses the sum of the meanings carried by the four characters, as chengyu are often intimately linked with the myth, story or historical fact from which they were derived. As such, chengyu do not follow the usual grammatical structure and syntax of the modern Chinese spoken language, and are instead highly compact and synthetic.

Chengyu in isolation are often unintelligible to modern Chinese, and when students in China learn chengyu in school as part of the Classical curriculum, they also need to study the context from which the chengyu was born. Often the four characters reflect the moral behind the story rather than the story itself.


Recently, the Ministry of Education in Taiwan collected the phrase "The Three Little Pigs (三隻小豬)" into its online Chengyu dictionary on its official website.  This has caused some controversy.  For starters, the story was sourced to Hans Christian Andersen, who did not pen this particular story.  That was a dreadfully embarrassing mistake.

Most people know the story of the three little pigs.  However, it is not a Chengyu in the usual sense.  At best, "The Three Little Pigs" is a phrase or a term.  That Chengyu dictionary also contains terms such as "Pinochhio," "Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty," "The Truman Show" and so on.  Again, none of them are Chengyu in the traditional sense.  Basically, teachers would not know how to show students to use these terms idiomatically.

(ETtoday; TVBS)  Minister of Education Tu Cheng-sheng came out in defense of the inclusion of "the Three Little Pigs."  "When I see small children being lazy, I tell them that they should not be like the eldest of the three little pigs.  They ought to reflect on the three little pigs.  This is how to use an idiomatic phrase."  "I can say, 'Don't be like the eldest of the three little pigs.'  Don't you know the story of the three little pigs?  That is how idioms are used."  That particular usage hardly represents any of the ways in which traditional idioms are used.

(TVBS) Meanwhile, the reporter tracked down the committee of 12 scholars from the Departments of Chinese Language at four major universities who spent three-and-a-half years coming up with this dictionary.  When asked, the convenor said that "The Three Little Pigs" and those other terms were never intended to be included in the proper Chengyu dictionary itself.  These terms appeared frequently enough in daily usage and therefore they were placed into an appendix so that people can look them up easily.  This did not meant that those terms have the status of Chengyu.  Shortly after this disclosure, the "Three Little Pigs" disappeared from the Chengyu dictionary in the morning, and then it re-surfaced in an appendix in the afternoon.

(ETtoday)  There are now some spoof essays circulating on the Internet:

Do you think that I am very "Lin Dai-yu" (note: a sickly beauty in the novel Dream of Red Mansion)?  But I am not yet "Sleeping Beauty" (note: unconscious), because my will is very "Rambo" (note: very firm) and my body is very "Jackie Chen" (note: strong)."

... Meanwhile back at the office, that "Infernal Affairs" (note: snitch, informer) kept turning his head around to peek at me.  This is "The Truman Show" (note: office workers working like puppets under constant surveillance) of the office world.  Although that person is very "Little Red Riding Hood," (note: innocent looking), he is a "Big Bad Wolf" (note: evil) inside.  But I dare not cross this colleague, because my boss will definitely think that I am not "The Three Little Pigs" (note: I did not perform as well as I could).  So my results this year will definitely be "Yue Fei" (note: dead for sure just like Song dynasty national hero marshall Yue Fei who came under disfavor).

(BCC; ETtoday)  Minister of Education Tu Cheng-sheng then said that Chengyu caused people to become lazy in their thinking, or get confused, or have only scanty or half-baked knowledge.  Thus, using Chengyu represents a failure in Chinese-language education.  Tu Cheng-sheng claimed to be a disciple of Hu Shi, and that was why he objected to Chengyu.  This drew the eminent poet Yu Kwang-chung to come out to clarify that Hu Shi used plenty of Chengyu in his own time, including providing personal calligraphy of famous Chengyu for other people; Hu Shi had objected to use to obscure Chengyu for the sake of obscurantism only.  In addition, the television channels began showing large numbers of old film clips of Premier Su Cheng-tseng and Vice-president Annette Lu making liberal use of Chengyu in their speeches.

(Apple Daily; China Post)  Tu Cheng-sheng might have been able to continue the cultural war, but something else happened.  His son Tu Ming-yi is currently serving his military service.  Recently, Tu Ming-yi obtained leave to celebrate his birthday at a private club and spent more than NT$30,000 for five hours of fun in the company of bar girls.  All this was recorded in the Apple Daily front page story.  It was noted that Tu Cheng-sheng's salary was NT$184,960 and Tu Ming-yi's salary was NT$6,435.  Notwithstanding this money issue, all soldiers and officers must sign a form when they go on leave to the effect that they promise that they will not visit any unsavory places with female escorts.  Thus, Tu Ming-yi had violated regulations (as documented by the photographs).  This event then placed Tu Cheng-sheng in the low ground insofar as any right to tell other people about the right way for education.  "Some suggested on the Internet that the education minister should spend more time on educating his own son instead of making improper public comments."

(UDN)  Heeding advice from his staff, Tu Cheng-sheng has decided not to make any more public appearances or speeches for now.  He has arranged to have a three-day mountain hiking trip in the hope that things will calm down.

(TVBS)  Even if Tu Cheng-sheng is away from civilization, his personal blog is being ripped to shreds by literary critics, who found spelling errors as well as frequent use of Chengyu.

Four Chengyu were used in the first paragraph

(KGO)  'Pigs' Banned From Chinese Television Ads.  By David Louie.  January 25, 2007.

The Lunar New Year is China's biggest celebration. February 18th will mark the beginning of the year of the pig, one of 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. However, China's state-owned television network, CCTV, has unexpectedly banned images and references to the pig in all advertising.

The network explains it's showing respect to Islam. But the ban is puzzling to American Muslims.

Fei Chatila is Chinese Muslim from Mountain View. The "Three Little Pigs" is a story she reads to her children.  "I can imagine that some Muslims, if they saw a lot of pig images, may be a little offended, but a picture of a pig is not offensive by itself."