Charlie Chan's Aphorisms and Sayings

“The one thing that Biggers complained about was the one thing the public loved. He said, ‘Everything is wonderful about the movie except the aphorisms. . . . Some Hollywood wiseacre rewrote all of Chan’s sayings into wise-guy sayings. I wish they would stop that.’”

-—Barbara Gregorich (“In Search of Charlie Chan” [Documentary], Copyright © 2006 Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment LLC. All Rights Reserved.)

So Earl Derr Biggers was not enamored of the aphorisms and sayings that Charlie Chan used in the films.

Randy R.X. Westfall has written:

“In every newspaper editorial, letter, or tribute to Earl Derr Biggers following his death, Biggers and Chan are synonymous. This collective feeling by those who mourned Biggers’ death at the age of 48 in April of 1933 was that his career was typified by Charlie Chan and rightly so. According to writer Barbara Gregorich, Earl Derr Biggers had realized the impact that Charlie Chan made on the world and thus, could never separate from it: He has Charlie Chan say in The Chinese Parrot ‘he who mounts a tiger can never dismount’ and I think Biggers sensed that in committing himself to a sequel to Chan he had mounted a tiger and there was no way he was ever going to get off this tiger and write something other than a Chan book.”

Note: University of Hawaii Library: An Elegy to Charlie Chan: Chang Apana, Earl Derr Biggers and Asian America. (A Thesis Submitted to the Graduate Division of the University of Hawaii in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts in American Studies), August 2007, by Randy R.X. Westfall)—from Chapter 6: The Truth Is Revealed

Yet Biggers himself has Charlie Chan use some aphorisms, sayings, and metaphors in his novels. The “Dismount a tiger” quote appeared in his novel The Chinese Parrot and in the movie “The Chinese Ring.”

In The Chinese Parrot, chapter IX, Biggers writes:

Chan dropped the role of Ah Kim. "Mr. Thorn plenty busy man," he said. "Maybe he get more busy as time goes by. One wrong deed leads on to other wrong deeds, like unending chain. Chinese have saying that applies: 'He who rides on tiger can not dismount.' "

Later, in chapter IX, Biggers writes:

Out of the shadows came Martin Thorn, his pale face gleaming in the dusk. "What's all this?" he asked. "Why--it's Louie. What's happened to Louie?"

He bent over the door of the car, and the busy flashlight in the hand of Charlie Chan shone for a moment on his back. Across the dark coat was a long tear--a tear such as might have been made in the coat of one climbing hurriedly through a barbed-wire fence.

"This is terrible," Thorn said. "Just a minute--I must get Mr. Madden."

He ran to the house, and Bob Eden stood with Charlie Chan by the body of Louie Wong.

"Charlie," whispered the boy huskily, "you saw that rip in Thorn's coat?"

"Most certainly," answered Chan. "I observed it. What did I quote to you this morning? Old saying of Chinese. 'He who rides a tiger can not dismount.' "

In the movie “The Chinese Ring,” the following transaction takes place between Charlie Chan (played by Roland Winters) and Birmingham Brown (played by Mantan Moreland):

Brown: “Oh, Mr. Chan, you ain’t going back with them dogs.”

Chan: “Man who ride on tiger cannot dismount.”

Brown: “You can’t?”

Reviewers, critics, and scholars have suggested that Biggers used the “Dismount a tiger. . . ” statement in reference to himself. However, it appears to be an authentic aphorism that Robert van Gulik found in a centuries-old Chinese manuscript which van Gulik translated into English and presented to the Western world as The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Dee Goong An).

One of Judge Dee’s cases involved a woman who murdered her husband. Dee was unable to extract a confession from her. A student named Hsu Deh-tai, however, testifies to Judge Dee. His testimony includes the following statement:

“After a week, however, Mrs. Djou insisted on seeing me. ‘I have’, she said ‘killed my husband for your sake, so that you would be able to marry me. Now you don’t seem to love me any more, so I shall give myself up to the tribunal. I regret that I shall then have to say that it was you who instigated this crime. If, on the other hand, perchance you still love me, we can quietly wait a year or so and then be happily married as man and wife’. On hearing these words, I knew how true our proverb is that says ‘Once one has ascended a tiger, it is difficult to dismount’. Thus I assured her that I still loved her and wanted nothing more than to marry her as soon as a decent interval elapsed. . . .”

—Robert Van Gulik [translator], The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Dee Goong An), New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1976, p. 196.

Other Chan Sayings in the Books

Biggers included other sayings, metaphors, and aphorisms used by Charlie Chan in the books. In The Black Camel, for example, Chan says to Tarnaverro, “You have perhaps heard old Eastern saying, ‘Death is the black camel that kneels unbid at every gate.’ ”

In Keeper of the Keys, chapter X, Biggers writes:

"That's about the way I feel--like an ant."

"But you are indispensable. These are, as my cousin Willie Chan, baseball player, would say, your home grounds. I am only stranger, passing through, and it has been well said, the traveling dragon can not crush the local snake." They walked together toward the pier. "Do not believe, however," Chan continued, "that I consider myself dragon. I lack, I fear, the figure."

In “Charlie Chan Carries On,” Biggers writes:

Charlie inserted his great bulk between Doctor Lofton and the captain. "Let the refreshing breeze of reason blow over this affair," he suggested gently. "Doctor Lofton, you are foolish man to listen to unresponsible talk of this plenty flippant person. He has no basis whatever for evil insinuations." He took the doctor by the arm and led him a few feet away.

From Aphorisms to 'Wiseguy" Sayings

In “Charlie Chan Carries On” (and “Eran Trece”) there is an abundance of Charlie’s aphorisms and sayings. From these, we can understand Biggers’s complaint was not the fact that aphorisms were included in the films but that they were transformed into “wiseguy” sayings.

Early in the film, before we even meet Charlie Chan, Inspector Duff quotes him when speaking with Miss Potter:

Miss Potter: “Any detail, any careless word could be a clue.”

Inspector Duff: “That’s likely. I have an old Chinese friend who always speaks in proverbs. He says, ‘Only very shrewd man can fire a cannon without making noise.’ ”

Inspector Duff also says to Miss Potter, “Waiting won’t get you anywhere. You’ve got to move forward and work hard. As my Chinese friend says, ‘Seated hunter and running hare will never meet.’ ”

Here are some more examples from the movie “Charlie Chan Carries On”:

  • Gardner to Inspector Duff: “Don’t go looking for trouble. Remember what Chan said. . . . ‘Rough winter’s coming in when honorable cheese goes after honorable mouse.’ ”
  • Chan to Lofton: “He who waters the tree deserves the fruit.”
  • Chan: “No man is a fool until he does something foolish.”
  • Chan to Kennaway: “A good wife is the best furnishing of a home.”
  • Chan to Minchin: “Every ‘maybe’ has a wife called ‘maybe not.’ ”
  • Chan to Miss Potter: “A big head is no more than a place for a big headache.”
  • Chan to Miss Potter: “The heart of a woman is a needle at the bottom of the sea.”
  • It is understandable why Biggers reacted to what is, perhaps, an overabundance of Chan’s sayings in the films, and to their being more tongue-in-cheek than the more serious tone he was aiming for in the Chan novels. Many fans enjoy them in both forms—I know I do.

    For more information about Charlie Chan, click on the links below to read articles.

    The Novels by Earl Derr Biggers:

    Charlie Chan Movies

    Charlie Chan Pastiches

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