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I recently came across 小葱拌豆腐一清二白 as a dictionary submission, but the explanation of the submitter was unclear. I have had mixed/little luck searching for the expression (or parts of it), and I also had no luck trying to obtain clarification from a native speaker.

  • Is this even one single expression? 一清二白 also appears to be a chengyu on its own.
  • What is the meaning/interpretation of 小葱拌豆腐一清二白 and/or 一清二白?
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一清二白 is a very common idiom. It's well defined in this dictionary:

◎ 一清二白 yī qīng èr bái

(1) [be perfectly spotless]∶非常清白 e.g. 素来一清二白

(2) [be perfectly clear; as clear as daylight]∶ 同“一清二楚” e.g. 记得一清二白

小葱拌豆腐一清二白 is 歇后语 as the other answer indicated. 歇后语 usually have two parts. The first part describes a way how the second part is generated.

In this case, 小葱拌豆腐 is a type of Chinese dish, which only consists of 小葱 and 豆腐. 青 and 白 refers to colors. 拌(stir) is the way the dish is made. 豆腐 is white(白). 葱 is cyan or green(青).

So, when you look at the dish, you would easily tell 小葱 from 豆腐(and vice versa) because their colors are very distinctive. One is 青(一青), and the other is 白(二白). That's how 一青二白 forms. 一青二白 and 一清二白 are homophones. In spoken, you wouldn't hear any difference.

歇后语 is kind of word play in my view and usually used when one tries to make some funny/humorous effect, impress his listeners, etc. E.g. 做人要像小葱拌豆腐一样,一清二白.

  • As I stated in my answer, Cantonese do not see 一清二白 as a common expression. 清清白白 is way more commonly used in its stead – Tang Ho Oct 10 at 1:22
  • @TangHo I see it pretty common. I don't know about Cantonese. – dan Oct 10 at 2:11
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小葱拌豆腐一清二白 is a 歇後語

歇後語:

two-part allegorical saying; enigmatic folk simile; truncated witticism

[literal] after-pause saying

小葱 is green onion, which is white and green; 豆腐 is tofu, which is white

  • The first part of the allegorical 小葱拌豆腐 means "green onion mix with tofu"

  • The second part of the allegorical 一青二白 means "it is either green or white"

  • And 青 sounds like 清(clean), therefore the real expression is 一清二白 (clean and pure)

  • The term 清白 (clean + white/ pure) is a compound word for "innocent/ "guildless"

  • 一清二白 emphasize both characters in 清白.

The common expressions using the same [一(X)二(Y)] structure include:

  • 清楚 (clear) --> 一清二楚 (completely clear)

  • 乾淨 (clean) --> 一乾二淨 (completely and cleanly; completely clean)

  • 窮(poor) 白(bare/ empty) --> 一窮二白 (poor and have nothing)

If 清白 means "guildless" , then 一清二白 would mean "completely guildless".

Unlike 一清二楚 and 一乾二淨, 一清二白 is not a common expression. That is one strike against it for listing in dictionary.

小葱拌豆腐 - 一清二白 is more of a enigmatic folk simile. its usage is only regional, if it end up as an dictionary entry, it has to be labeled as "regional folk saying".

I have never heard a similar expression of 小葱拌豆腐 in Cantonese before, the usage of this two-part allegorical saying is certainly not universal.

Some examples of two-part allegorical:

  • (Mandarin) 和尚打傘 - 無(髮)法無天 / (Cantonese) 和尚擔遮 - 無(髮)法無天 = "lawless"

  • (Mandarin) 肉包子打狗 - 有去沒回 = "gone forever"

  • (Cantonese) 寡母婆死仔 - 冇晒望 = "hopeless"

  • (Cantonese) 賣魚佬冲涼 - 冇(腥)聲氣 = "no result" ; "no sign"

  • That is an awesome explanation and breakdown. I am much indebted; thank you! 一清二白 is clear now, but I'm still at a loss what to make of the entire expression. Maybe seeking a "meaning" is not the right approach, so I wonder, how would you describe the usage of the phrase - in what situation, for what purpose; what is the intended message or effect? – g.u. Oct 9 at 21:50
  • @g.u. 一清二白 in Cantonese can only mean "completely guildless", but according to Dan's answer, 一清二白 seems to carry not only the meaning of "completely guildless", but also the meaning of "completely clear", same as 一清二楚. I think 一清二白 is a much less common variant of 一清二楚 in Mandarin only. And the 歇後語: 小葱拌豆腐 is clearly not Cantonese, so the usage is mainly restricted for Mandarin or even narrowly regional. As for when to use it, you use it when you want to say someone is "completely guildless", or something is "completely clear" – Tang Ho Oct 10 at 1:39
  • Since 一清二楚 is much more common than 一清二白 when referring to "completely clear" and 清清白白 is much more common than 一清二白 when referring to "completely guildless" I don't think " 一清二白" is a very common term at all – Tang Ho Oct 10 at 1:52

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