Flower growing in cow dung, old ox grazing on young grass

Zhang Ciyun
Social prejudices about gaps in age, social status or education can define couples as “mismatched.”
Zhang Ciyun

In both English and Chinese, there are some common sayings and phrases describing popular perspectives of “mismatched couples.”

People often characterize relationships as inappropriate if they cross the lines of different social strata, physical appearance or age gaps.

Interestingly, Chinese idioms describing this narrow-mindedness often involve cattle or oxen.

When a person, usually a man, dates or marries someone who is significantly younger, English speakers might describe him as “robbing the cradle.” In Chinese, however, people would quote the saying laoniu chinencao, or literally “an old ox grazes on tender grass.”


lǎo niú chī nèn cǎo

In some, but rare, cases, the “ox” could be a “cow.”

The saying is usually used in a joking but nevertheless critical manner. It would be deemed offensive to utter it in front of the older person in such a relationship if one didn’t know him well.

In a romantic or marital relationship, if the woman is beautiful, intelligent and well-educated and her partner is average-looking or even ugly, has a low IQ, minimum education or no education at all, English speakers may call the pair “beauty and beast.”

But the Chinese tend to depict them with another common idiom, xianhua chazai niufenshang, which translates literally as “a fresh flower grows in a heap of cow dung.”


xiān huā chā zài niú fèn shàng

Occasionally, this expression may also be used to describe situations where a smart, capable woman lives or works in a place that is beneath her worthiness.

No one seems to have a clear explanation why cattle or oxen are used in China to illustrate “mismatched” romantic relations.

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