‘Follow the vine to find the melon’ — phrase of the week

Society & Culture

Beijing police arrested an actor for soliciting prostitutes, and the Chinese internet has plenty of words for it.

Illustration for The China Project by Derek Zheng

Our phrase of the week is: follow the vine to find the melon (顺藤摸瓜 shùnténg mōguā).

Context  

Social media feeds were dominated earlier this week with the news of one of China’s most famous celebrities being arrested. 

The big scoop, known as a 瓜 guā, a melon, in Chinese internet slang, followed an announcement by the Beijing police that actor Lǐ Yìfēng 李易峰 had been arrested for soliciting prostitutes.

Shortly after the news broke, brands associated with Li announced that they were dropping him as their brand ambassador.

To make matters worse, Li had previously starred as a spokesperson for the Ministry of State Security and played Máo Zédōng 毛泽东 in the movie The Pioneer. He was also due to attend the Mid-Autumn Festival Gala on CCTV on Saturday night, but was removed from the program.

Internet users and pundits were quick to comment with creative language, puns, and plays on words. 

Legal affairs Weibo account Jiāngníng Pópo 江宁婆婆, reportedly run by the deputy chief of the Jiangning Police Department in Nanjing, chimed in with the following confusing comment: 

This melon has actually been found by following the melon vine. More melons will probably be found. It’s a case of being caught under a plum tree or in a melon field.

这个瓜本质上其实是个“顺藤摸瓜,” 搞不好还可能从这个瓜摸出个瓜田,“瓜田李下”了属于是。

Zhège guā běnzhì shàng qíshí shì ge “shùnténg mōguā,” gǎo bù hǎo hái kěnéng cóng zhège guā mō chū ge guā tián,“guātián lǐxià” le shǔ yú shì.

Translation 

This idiom literally translates as “follow the vine” (顺藤 shùn téng), “feel the melon” (摸瓜 mō guā). The metaphor, usually used in legal cases or investigations, can be translated as “following clues and finding a culprit.” 

The idiom first appeared in a People’s Daily article in 1982, so there’s not the usual historical background one would expect to discover while exploring an idiom.    

But the real magic of this idiom is how it’s used in the whole sentence. By using the slang word for “big scoop” in Chinese, 瓜 guā, melon, the writer not only refers to finding the culprit (Li Yifeng), but also provides a metaphor for a big news story. 

The second idiom in the sentence also draws from the melon metaphor: 瓜田李下 guā tián lǐ xià, which translates as “caught in a melon patch or under a plum tree.” It originated in a poem by the Three Kingdoms poet Cáo Zhí 曹植, who was also the son of the powerful warlord Cáo Cāo 曹操. The story behind the idiom is “Don’t bend down in a melon field, and don’t reach up under a plum tree; both will make people suspicious.” 

So this second idiom also has a double meaning: one that describes the suspicious circumstances under which Li has been caught, and another that suggests the scale of his downfall — with more melons (scoops) likely to be found as the police explore more clues (melon vines) in the case (the melon field). 

Therefore, perhaps a better way to translate the sentence would be: 

The case has been brought by the police carefully following clues. It’s likely to lead to more news of wrongdoings by Li Yifeng. 

这个瓜本质上其实是个“顺藤摸瓜,” 搞不好还可能从这个瓜摸出个瓜田,“瓜田李下”了属于是。

Zhège guā běnzhì shàng qíshí shì ge “shùnténg mōguā,” gǎo bù hǎo hái kěnéng cóng zhège guā mō chū ge guā tián,“guātián lǐxià” le shǔ yú shì.

Andrew Methven