If you're learning Chinese, then you're learning the language of one of the most ancient cultures in the world. So it is no wonder the language is rich in idioms representing millennia of wisdom and experience.
It’s impossible to learn a language without touching on the culture of the people who speak it. But with Chinese, this goes far deeper. And Chinese idioms, proverbs and sayings are an integral part of what makes the language so fascinating.
This is a vast topic, and countless books have been written on the subject. But to give you a taste, here is my brief introduction to Chinese idioms.
By the way, if you want to learn Chinese fast and have fun, my top recommendation is Chinese Uncovered which teaches you through StoryLearning®.
With Chinese Uncovered you’ll use my unique StoryLearning® method to learn Chinese through story… not rules. It’s as fun as it is effective. If you’re ready to get started, click here for a 7-day FREE trial.
What Are Chinese Idioms?
When we talk about Chinese idioms, we usually mean 成语 chéngyŭ, which translates as something like ‘formed words’. This is a collection of around 5,000 sayings, usually consisting of four (but sometimes five or more) characters.
All Chinese speakers know at least some chengyu. But knowing lots and being able to employ them correctly marks a speaker out as being eloquent and educated.
Most are taken from classical Chinese and date back many hundreds – if not thousands – of years. But many are still in common use today, both in the spoken and written language.
Chengyu usually represent the condensation of a longer story. So by speaking the four characters, the speaker recalls the story behind it and the lesson it teaches us.
Think of The Boy Who Cried Wolf in English. Every English speaker knows the story. And if you warn somebody not to ‘cry wolf’, they understand exactly what it means because of the fable behind it.
Chinese chengyu work just like this. And in a way, they occupy a similar place in the Chinese consciousness as Aesop’s Fables in Western culture.
And just as with the example of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, it can often be difficult or impossible to guess the meaning of a chengyu if you don’t know the story behind it.
Since Chinese idioms date back centuries or even millennia, they are rich in the imagery of daily life in ancient China. The stories feature emperors, kings, generals and scholars. And they often feature wild animals, mythical creatures, wars, adventures, love stories and other elements relevant to the people of the time.
This is another aspect that makes Chinese chengyu so fascinating since they also provide a window into the past, allowing us to peer back into the China of old and gain a greater understanding of the people and culture that gave rise to these idioms.
That’s a brief overview. So now let’s have a look at some of the most famous examples to see how they work.
Traditional Four-And Five-Character Chengyu
Here are just a few of the best known or most interesting traditional chengyu along with versions of their stories to help you understand the origin and meaning.
#1 狐假虎威 hú jiă hŭ wēi
This idiom is an example of one that is impossible to understand if you don’t know the story, which goes like this:
One day, a tiger was walking in the mountains when he came across a fox and said to himself, ‘today I will eat well!’ However, the fox, thinking quickly, said to the tiger, ‘do you know who I am? I am the ruler of the forest and all its animals. All the animals are afraid of me!’
The tiger was doubtful. But the fox went on, ‘if you don’t believe me, we can take a walk in the forest. I will go first, and you can follow. Then you will see that all the animals of the forest are afraid of me!’
The tiger thought this sounded reasonable. So they walked into the forest together, the fox in front and the tiger behind.
As they walked, all the animals in the forest saw them and ran away in fear. And when he saw this, the tiger believed the fox’s words, saying to himself that the fox was surely the greatest of all the animals.
But what the tiger didn’t realise was that the animals weren’t afraid of the fox at all. But of the tiger himself.
The four characters of this chengyu literally mean something like ‘fake fox, powerful tiger’. It describes a situation where somebody wields power because they are backed by a powerful patron.
In a modern context, you could use it to describe somebody who behaves arrogantly in an office because they know the boss favours them.
#2 骑虎难下 qí hŭ nán xià
This chengyu translates as ‘riding a tiger, difficult to get off’, and the story behind it is as follows:
Once a hunter was walking through the forest when he came across a tiger. But before the tiger could eat him, he managed to climb up a tree. However, because the tiger was very hungry, it stayed at the bottom of the tree. So the hunter couldn’t come down.
The hunter was very afraid. And in a panic of fear, he fell out of the tree and landed on the tiger’s back. The only thing he could do to keep from being eaten alive was to hang onto the tiger’s back as it ran around everywhere.
With the hunter on its back, the tiger ran into a nearby town. And the people there were amazed when they saw the hunter, saying he was so brave he even dared to ride on a tiger’s back.
However, the hunter wasn’t brave at all – he just had no way of getting off the tiger without being eaten.
The meaning is that sometimes when you commit to something or find yourself in a difficult situation, you have to see it through to the end, even if you don’t want to, because there is no way out.
#3 井底之蛙 jĭng dĭ zhī wā
This chengyu translates as ‘frog in the bottom of a well’, and the story behind it goes like this:
A long time ago, a frog lived in the bottom of a well. Every day, he splashed around in the water, happy that he was the master of the well. And he was content, thinking he was so lucky to live in the most perfect place in the world.
However, one day, a sea turtle poked his head over the top of the well and asked the frog if he had ever seen the sea. The frog had never seen the sea, so he asked if it was as big as his well. He then invited the turtle to come down into the well.
The turtle tried to go down. But he was far too big. So from the top of the well, he told the frog about the great size of the sea. At once, the frog began to understand how big the world must be outside of his well. And he was ashamed that he had never been outside to explore.
This idiom is used to criticise somebody with a closed mind or a narrow outlook in life, somebody who is convinced their small world is the best place possible because they’ve never ventured out to explore. You can apply it literally or figuratively.
#4 亡羊补牢 wáng yáng bŭ láo
The story behind this well-known chengyu goes like this:
Once there was a shepherd who had twelve sheep. One day, he went to the pen to discover that part of the enclosure had broken and one of the sheep had escaped.
His neighbour told him that he should fix it quickly. But he replied that if the sheep had already escaped, what was the point?
However, the next day he discovered that another sheep had run away. And finally understanding the wisdom of his neighbour’s advice, he patched up the broken fence, after which no more sheep were lost.
This idiom means ‘mend the fold after the sheep is lost’. And the meaning is that it’s better to take action too late and prevent further damage than to take no action at all. Alternatively, it can mean that it’s never too late to try.
This chengyu is reminiscent of the English saying ‘a stitch in time saves nine’. Although the meaning is a little different.
#5 一箭双雕 yí jiàn shuāng diāo
During the Northern and Southern Dynasties period, a general named Zhangsun Sheng who was renowned for his archery skill was sent to escort a princess to the northwest to marry a Turkic king.
While he was there, the Turkic king was so impressed by the general’s prowess with a bow that he decided to take him hunting.
During the hunt, they saw two vultures fighting over a piece of carrion in the air. So the king gave Zhangsun Sheng two arrows and asked him to shoot them down. But instead of using both arrows, he shot a single arrow from his bow, which passed through both vultures, killing them both.
This idiom means ‘one arrow, two vultures’ and was originally referred to someone with great skill with a bow. But now it has come to mean something similar to the English expression ‘kill two birds with one stone’.
#6 卧虎藏龙 wò hŭ cáng lóng
This chengyu was used as the title of the famous Chinese film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).
It refers to a place where the people seem normal and unassuming whereas, in fact, they are strong and powerful.
#7 画蛇添足 huà shĕ tiān zú
If you hear somebody using this idiom, which literally means ‘draw snake, add feet’, it refers to spoiling the effect of something by overdoing it or adding superfluous details.
It comes from the story of a painter who lost a drawing competition because, although he finished his picture of a snake first, when he saw the others were still sketching, he continued working by adding feet. This caused him to finish after the others, and so he lost the contest.
#8 对牛弹琴 duì niú tán qín
The meaning of this idiom is ‘playing the qin (a Chinese musical instrument) to a cow’. And it was originally used to point out the uselessness of talking about Buddhist scriptures to those who have never read them.
Nowadays, it refers more broadly to addressing the wrong audience or saying something that goes over somebody’s head.
#9 缘木求鱼yuán mù qiú yú
Here’s an idiom that’s easy to understand without too much explanation. It translates as ‘climbing trees to catch fish’ and refers to taking a wrong or ineffectual approach to something.
#10 鱼目混珠 yú mù hùn zhū
Fish are a common theme in many chengyu, and this one, meaning to ‘pass off fish eyes as pearls’, refers to trying to sell or pass off low-quality items as something valuable.
#11 揠苗助长 yà miáo zhù zhăng
This chengyu can be translated as ‘pulling shoots to help them grow’. And even without knowing the full story, it’s easy to understand. If you want your plants to grow, it won’t help them if you pull up the shoots – it will only damage or kill them.
It describes a situation where you spoil something through excessive enthusiasm or zeal.
#12 笑里藏刀 xiào lĭ cáng dāo
This is another chengyu with a clear meaning. The translation is ‘daggers hidden in smiles’, and it refers to hiding insidious intentions behind a smiling face. It can also refer to hiding hypocritical intentions behind a friendly demeanour.
#13 杀鸡给猴看 shā jī gĕi hóu kàn
Here’s a five-character chengyu that can be translated as ‘kill the chicken for the monkey to see’. A less literal version could be ‘kill the chicken to scare the monkey’. And the meaning is making an example of somebody or something to scare, punish or encourage the others.
#14 树倒猢狲散 shù dăo hú sūn sàn
This five-character chengyu means ‘when the tree falls, the monkeys scatter’, which is the Chinese equivalent of ‘rats fleeing from a sinking ship’. 猢狲 húsūn is the Chinese word for ‘macaque’.
Longer Chinese Idioms Or Proverbs
Chinese also has many longer sayings or proverbs, so here are three famous ones to give you some examples.
#15 千里之行始于足下 qiān lĭ zhī xíng shĭ yú zú xià
This Chinese saying is also famous in English and means ‘a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step’.
It means that even the longest task has a beginning and that if you want to reach your goal, you need to make a start and stick with it. This is a good motto for anyone learning Chinese!
#16 读万卷书不如行万里路 dú wàn juàn shū bù rú xíng wàn lĭ lù
Here we have a saying that translates well into English as ‘reading a thousand books is not worth travelling a thousand miles’. The meaning is clear – experience is far more valuable than book learning.
The order of the characters in this proverb can sometimes be rearranged slightly. But the meaning remains the same.
#17 以小人之心度君子之腹 yĭ xiăo rén zhī xīn duó jūn zĭ zhī fù
This is an interesting saying that translates as something like ‘to judge the heart of a small man against the belly of a gentleman’, and it explains that the way we judge others often reflects on ourselves and our character.
In English, we have a similar saying: ‘it takes one to know one’.
Chinese Idioms: A Hugely Fascinating Subject
Chinese idioms is a fascinating subject you can spend years studying. But if you're learning the language, chengyu and other sayings are considered high-level.
However, even knowing just one or two and being able to drop them into a conversation at an opportune moment is sure to impress your Chinese friends greatly!