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Just like English, Chinese is a language with countless idioms (成语 – chéng yǔ). While it can be tricky to actually get to a level where you can use idioms in your everyday life in China, it’s still interesting and useful to learn them. Studying Chinese idioms not only helps you improve your language skills, but it also provides insights into a rich culture that is thousands of years old. And if you do find yourself in a situation where you can drop an idiom you know, you’re sure to impress. One great thing about Chinese idioms is that almost all of them are just four characters, so they’re not terribly difficult to remember. Here are 5 awesome Chinese idioms to get you started:
This idiom literally translates as “people mountain people sea,” which is a fine piece of Chinglish on its own. Used as an idiom, however, it’s basically the Chinese equivalent of “a sea of people.” In the most populated country in the world, it should come as no surprise that this idiom is frequently used. It has even made its way to Urban Dictionary! Anytime you go to a Chinese train station, or visit a famous landmark during a holiday, you’ll be able to put this idiom to use.
Meaning: It basically means “a huge crowd of people.”
Use: Try this idiom out anytime you see large crowds of people.
As this story goes, there was a very strong mantis (螳 – táng) who could destroy all other mantises in fights. Of course, this mantis got a little cocky as a result of this. One day, a coach was driving by on his horse carriage (马车 – mǎ chē). The over-confident mantis decided to raise his arms in an attempt to stop the rolling carriage. The driver ignored the stupid mantis, and kept driving straight. Of course, the mantis was run over and killed as a result of his foolishness.
Meaning: Overstating one’s abilities and trying to do what is beyond one’s power.
Usage: Used to describe an over-confident, self-important person.
The history of this idiom comes from a story about a woman named Liang. One day, there was a fire inside of her house while she was out. When she returned home, she noticed the house up in flames, and realized that her nephew and her own child were trapped in the house. She bravely ran into the burning house, attempting to save her brother’s child first. However, the smoke blocked her vision, and when she got outside it became clear that she had rescued her own child first. Afraid of being criticized for being selfish, she rushed back into the fire to save her nephew. Sadly, the fire was too strong, and Liang burned to death. Of course, everyone in the village knew about this tragedy.
Meaning: This idiom is used today to describe something that is known by everyone.
Usage: It’s a pretty versatile idiom. For example, when you punch it into the popular Chinese search engine Baidu.com, one of the pictures you get is of Ronald McDonald, or the “well-known McDonald’s uncle” (家喻户晓的麦当劳叔叔 – jiā yù hù xiǎo de mài dāng láo shū shu).
HERE’S a YouKu video showing the story of this idiom.
Atop of the famous Wutai Mountain (五台山 – wǔ tái shān), there lived a bird named Hanhao (寒号 – hán hào). In the summertime, the bird would be covered in beautiful, colorful feathers. He would proudly sing out everyday, “The Phoenix is not as good as me!” In the autumn, the bird would continue to sing loud and proud, while others would go about building their nests. Finally, in the dead of winter, even though the bird was really cold, he would not build his nest. With his feathers shed, Hanhao was left shivering through the night. When the sun would rise, he would go right back to singing and dancing…
Meaning: Muddling along; being satisfied just to get through
Usage: This can be used to describe a person who dawdles the hours away with no plans for the future.
Once upon a time, there was a man who loved eating pears and dates. However, one day a doctor told him, “Eating pears is good for your teeth, but overeating will harm your spleen. Dates are good for your spleen, but overeating will harm your teeth.” The man decided that as long as he only chewed the pears, and only swallowed the dates, he would be just fine. Of course, it wasn’t long before he experienced a horrible stomachache.
Meaning: This idiom is used to describe a person who accepts information without prior analysis, reflection, and understanding.
Usage: You know your crazy uncle who is always ranting about conspiracy theories and politics, but never has a source for anything? Yeah, this idiom describes him pretty well.