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I know of a Chinese proverb that warns against something along the lines of idleness. Translated literally into English, it would be something along the lines of "Drink the Northwestern winds."

What is the origin of the proverbial phrase? And what is so peculiar about the Northwestern winds of China that would have inspired this proverb?

  • See this Baidu article. 边云四顾浓,饥马嗅枯丛。万里八九月,一身西北风。唐·枉檐《游边》 – 杨以轩 Aug 3 '13 at 8:49
  • In Cantonese, it is 食西北風, eat instead of drink. – OmniBus Feb 4 '15 at 0:21
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喝西北风,originally as 吸风, from 《庄子·逍遥游》:

藐姑射之山,有神人居焉……不食五谷,吸风饮露。

Its original meaning is to live with just breathing the air, not eating or drinking anything else. It's a state in Tao.

Nowadays, in oral Chinese, 喝西北风 usually means having nothing to eat because of poverty. For example:

他工作要是丢了,全家都得去喝西北风。

  • Great answer & thanks for the example sentence. Just one request if possible, why did "吸风" turn into "喝西北风"? – aelephant Aug 3 '13 at 3:29
  • @aelephant I don't know exactly how it turns. But it's not surprising since many idioms are very different from their origins, both form and meaning. In this case, one possible explanation is that the wind from northwest is cold in China, so this is more vivid, I guess. – Yu Hao Aug 3 '13 at 3:35
  • Interesting! I asked a Chinese coworker why we don't say "读万本书" instead of "读万卷书" and she told me that you can't change those set phrases! Seems like some are fixed & some are changeable afterall. – aelephant Aug 3 '13 at 3:51
  • @aelephant In the case of 喝西北风, I think it's more like evolvement, as we don't say 吸风 any more, it's just its origin in ancient Chinese. – Yu Hao Aug 3 '13 at 3:54
  • @aelephant The significance of Northwestern wind is because with the climate of mainland China (temperate monsoon climate on the east coast of a continent), in the spring warm Eastern wind blows but in the winter the stark wind comes from the Northwest. So 喝西北风 suggests 'nothing to eat in a cold day', which further strengthens the metaphor. – NS.X. Aug 3 '13 at 4:32

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