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The modern colloquial phrase "八竿子打不着" is used as an adjective to describe "very distant, unrelated". Example:

这是八竿子打不着的事情,怎么能联系上呢?

It literally means "couldn't hit with even eight poles". I can see how this leads to the actual meaning, but

  • What does the eight represent? Eight poles (why)? A unit of measure? A metaphor for "many"?
  • What does the hitting with poles signify? Does it represent a specific activity?

There are a few theories - folk etymologies really - about where this came from, but none are referenced well. The earliest record of this phrase is usually attributed to the novel 飘飞的大雪 by 母国政, which unfortunately does not shed any more light on the origin of this phrase.

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5 Answers 5

well, what I heard is another story, but I cannot confirm or verify it. “八(ba1)竿子打不着” MAYBE came from "爬(pa2)竿子打不着“,here 竿子 means ladder, and ”爬竿子打不着“ means "it's too high, you cannot hit it even with a ladder (when you climbed a ladder)". And since "pa" and "ba" sounds similar, it became "ba" in current version.

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I am a Chinese and I does not heard "爬竿子打不着". –  Pikaurd Aug 25 at 9:09
    
@Pikaurd, I got what you mean. I'm not saying it's a widely accepted explanation. I just throw out my version, and surely it may be wrong. –  Caff Huang Aug 25 at 16:38

In many cases, a number in an idiom or proverb or colloquial phrase doesn't mean the exact number itself. So you are right to think eight here means many.

Talk about the hitting activity, you may imagine yourself with a pole under a chestnut tree, to harvest the chestnuts, you have to hit with your pole. But your pole is too short so you hit eight times but get nothing. As a reference, there's another colloquial phrase involving a pole and hitting: 有枣没枣三杆子, which literally means no matter you see jujubes on the tree or not, just hit three times with a pole (in hope of hitting something by fortune). Similarly, three in this phrase doesn't mean the exact number.

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This is a word few man knows the source, but all can understand it's meaning. 八 maybe is actually transformed from 扒 in the real meaning, which means climb by a pole or some what likeness. In fact, it's more likely to mean there is no relation between two things.

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Do you have anything to back up your claims?! If so please edit your answer with this info. –  user3306356 Aug 25 at 9:11

the 八 here really is just adjective for the length of your imaginary stick(has no literal meaning, just that it's long), meaning that even if you have a long stick, you still can't reach from one to the other, signifying that there are really no relationships between the two things in question.

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What does the eight represent? Eight poles (why)? A unit of measure? A metaphor for "many"? A metaphor for "many"?

What does the hitting with poles signify? Does it represent a specific activity? It just represent distance very far.

“现在有些人,千方百计地寻找在国外八竿子打不着的亲友,想方设法要出去。” means "Nowadays many people want go abroad so that they find friend or relatives a long time without contacts." Therefore, that "relative or friend" are too far to him (who want go abroad), even using a pole has eight times length of a plain pole can not hit "relative or friend".

Hopes you can understand.

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