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People use the idiom 杀人如麻 all the time but hemp is no longer a familiar scene to most people, and I doubt anyone ever saw a hemp in his whole life. Exactly what mental imagery is 麻 supposed to invoke?

  • bkrs:[kill people like flies; commit innumerable murders; decimate the population] 形容杀人极多 朝避猛虎, 夕避长蛇。 磨牙吮血, 杀人如麻。 --唐·李白《蜀道难》 这是一个杀人如麻的惯匪,【释义】如麻:象乱麻一样数不清。杀死的人多得象乱麻。形容杀的人多得数不清。 【近义】嗜血成性、斩尽杀绝 【反义】救死扶伤 如麻 : 1) 形容杂乱。e。g。心乱如麻 2) 形容密集、多。e。g。屋漏如麻 雨脚如麻 also note generic name for hemp, flax etc; hemp or flax fiber for textile materials; sesame; CL:缕[lu:3]; (of materials) rough or coarse; pocked; pitted; to have pins and needles or tingling; to feel numb; surname Ma 小马词典 has 138 compounds using 麻 – user6065 Nov 16 '17 at 15:57
  • Thanks, but no dictionary definition can help. My guess is it depicts the chaotic scene of hemp field when hemp plants were mowed down by scythe. – George Chen Nov 16 '17 at 16:12
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    杀人如麻 is one of many 成语 starting with 杀人如, some others involving more familiar plants, see e.g. zuciwang.com/zhuanti/… 【杀人如藨】杀人像割草一样。形容把杀人不当一回事。 【杀人如草】形容杀人多,极轻视人命。 【杀人如蒿】形容杀的人多得数不清。同“杀人如麻”。 【杀人如芥】芥:小草。杀人像割草。形容杀人不当一回事。 【杀人如麻】如麻:象乱麻一样数不清。杀死的人多得象乱麻。形容杀的人多得数不清。 【视人如伤】把百姓当作有伤病的人一样照顾。旧时形容在位者关怀人民。同“视民如伤”。and more – user6065 Nov 16 '17 at 16:53
  • I see. I've been mistaken all my life. It describes the unscrupulous attitude of the killer, not the numerousness of the killed. – George Chen Nov 16 '17 at 17:27
  • @GeorgeChen, you are not wrong with your original thought. Refer to my answer. – dan Nov 16 '17 at 18:45
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In 杀人如麻, 杀人: killing people; 如: 'like'; 麻(hemp): 乱麻(Baidu translates it as 'habijabi').

乱麻 is like this picture:

enter image description here

Can you count how many lines of 麻 in this picture??? If you can't, Can you imagine the same number of people were killed? That's what 杀人如麻 describes here.

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in literatures of yore, the term "殺人如*" has several variations.

in 陳拾遺集卷九

殺人如麻﹒血流成澤

in 太白詩 白馬篇

殺人如剪草

in 建炎以來繫年要錄 卷四

殺人如刈麻﹒臭聞數百里

i would make a mental image of "殺人如麻" as "killing people like mowing hemps". such metaphor would be:

sickle - the sword, knife

mowing - killing (people) without considerations, massively

when mowing hemps, or grasses, no one spend time to examine particular grass, appreciate it's beauty; or consider the rationale of mowing.

hemps - life is worthless, without value

well, in mowing, one would consider cutting / clearing as many hemps / grasses as possible, with minimum efforts.

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