Breaking Down Common Chinese Idioms

There are many idioms, figurative phrases and expressions that have different meanings than what’s indicated, that you probably use often in your lives. Expressions like “break a leg,” “feeling under the weather,” and “hang in there” are not uncommon and used with ease by English speakers who understand what these phrases really mean.

Like many languages, Mandarin Chinese possess many idioms, which are called chengyu. Chengyu are based in classical Chinese literature and typically consist of four Chinese characters. In the Chinese language, there are (at the minimum) 5000 idioms that exist, although only a fraction is widely used. These idioms are used in conversations, in magazines, even in TV game shows!  Here are fifteen typical chengyu explained.

亡羊补牢 wáng yáng bǔ
Translation: To fix a fence after the sheep are lost/dead

A story is attached to this particular chengyu. A shepherd realized the pen in which his sheep were kept was faulty. The shepherd did nothing and the next day, the sheep were lost or dead. Although his livestock was lost, the shepherd decided to fix his fence. This idiom suggests that delayed action is still worth doing.

半途而废 (bàn tú ér fèi)
Translation: Give up halfway

The action typically associated with this chengyu is traveling down a road but stopping and turning around halfway. This can be used to describe someone who doesn’t follow through with his or her actions or plans. More often than not, people say this idiom to encourage people to not be like this.

马马虎虎 (mǎ ma hū hū)
Translation: Horse horse, tiger tiger.

This is one of the most memorable idioms because of how fun it is to say and its unique translation! By pairing these animals, which are pretty important in Chinese culture and history, together in a phrase, it suggests that something isn’t either of these animals actually.  So when people say this chengyu, they are saying that something’s “so-so.”

不可思议 (bù kě sī yì)
Translation: Unbelievable

This one is rather straightforward as well! The characters literally translate to “can’t fathom,” which is often understood as inconceivable, unimaginable, amazing, incredible, crazy, and so on. Consider it an exclamatory idiom!

九牛一毛 (jiǔ niú yī máo)
Translation: Nine cows, one hair

For this chengyu, think of its English counterpart: “a drop in the ocean.” Basically, this idiom means that an action or event that took place is so insignificant that it doesn’t make a difference in the grander scheme of things. Between nine cows, only a single strand fell.

入乡随俗 rù xiāng suí sú
Translation: Enter a village and follow its local customs

The English phrase, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” is most similar to this specific Chinese idiom. Although the direct translation suggests that one must obey local traditions and customs of a place, it is not usually said in a strict tone. Yet it is indicative of embracing and respecting a foreign culture and its idiosyncrasies.

爱不释手 ài bù shì shǒu
Translation: A love that cannot be released

The literal translation from Chinese is “love and not let go (with) hand.” But, in an abstract sense, it is a concept that is universally familiar. It is a chengyu that touches on what it feels like to love something or someone and feel unable to part with it.

骑虎难下 qí hŭ nán xià
Translation: Dismounting a tiger is difficult.

Another rather amusing chengyu that holds a complex meaning. Based on an old Chinese tale, the idiom paints a scenario in which, if you were riding a tiger, it would be hard and dangerous to dismount said tiger. Many interpret this as a reassurance and motivation to persist forward in a difficult situation.

顺其自然 (shùn qí zì rán)
Translation: Allow naturally

Sometimes, there are instances and occurrences that we cannot control. Sometimes, you can’t force things to take place or be how you desire it to be. This chengyu refers to the concept of letting things be or allowing things to unfold naturally.

心血来潮 (xīn xuè lái cháo)
Translation: Blood flows to heart

This idiom produces an exciting image! It is meant to describe an action or moment that feels sudden and sudden and reminds a person of their livelihood. You can compare it to the English idioms, “spur of the moment” or “without notice.”

对牛弹琴 (duì niú tán qín)
Translation: To play a musical instrument to cows

There may be some animals that like human music, but chances are that they don’t quite appreciate it the way that people do. This idiom describes situations of listeners being uninterested and unreceptive to what the speaker has to say. For English speakers, they understand this as words “falling on deaf ears.” But who knows if cows are receptive to human music!

乱七八糟 (luàn qī bā zāo)
Translation: Messy disorder

Perhaps this is an older English idiom, but you can equate this chengyu with, “at sixes and sevens.” Regardless, both phrases are meant to describe confusion, disorder, and messiness. It can be used to describe both the physical and the conceptual.

The use of chengyu is widespread! It’s not always easy using one, especially for people just beginning to learn how. But because of how commonly it is used in normal conversations, it’s a good idea to keep learning about them more!