Chinese Language Blog

Fun With Chinese Idioms Posted by on Nov 10, 2020 in Culture, Vocabulary

Just like English, Chinese is a language with countless idioms. 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. They aren’t exactly always easy to incorporate into your day-to-day life, but it’s still fun to learn some Chinese idioms. I’ll introduce a few of them to you today to get you started, but first a little background information…

Understanding Chinese Idioms

In Chinese, the word for idiom (成语 – chéng yǔ) literally means “to become a part of the language.” All idioms are composed of four characters, and most come from ancient literature. As such, the meaning of the idiom itself is usually more than the four characters on their own can describe.

The overall meaning is linked to the story or myth from which it came. They can be difficult to understand, as they do not follow the usual grammatical structure and syntax of the modern Chinese spoken language.

Translating Chinese idioms directly to English can be quite confusing. That should come as no surprise, though. Just consider what native Chinese speakers might think when they hear English idioms like “raining cats and dogs” or “put a sock in it.” Idioms aren’t always easy to understand, but they are still culturally interesting!

3 Classic Chinese Idioms

Now that you know a bit about Chinese idioms, here are 3 classic ones that you can practice:

Wield the axe.
Image by Markus Spiske from Pixabay

bān mén nòng fǔ
“Wield the axe before Master Carpenter Luban”

Background: In ancient times, Lu Ban (鲁班 – lǔ bān) was a carpenter with such incredible skills that one time, a wooden phoenix that he carved was so life-like it actually flew for three days. As such, one was considered a complete buffon for trying to show off their skills with an axe in front of Master Luban.

Meaning: This is a derogatory idiom that can be used to describe someone who shows off in front of an expert. Alternatively, it can be self-effacing if used when presenting work to others for review and/or comments.

Here’s an animated video that introduces this idiom with subtitles.

chén yú luò yàn
“Causing the fish to sink deep in water and the geese to fall to the ground”

Background: As the story goes, there were once four ancient beauties, including 西施 (xī shī), who lived during the Spring and Autumn Period (春秋 – chūn qiū) from 770-221 BC. One day, she and some friends went to the water to wash yarn. With a blue sky and clear water, the girls could easily see the fish swimming below. Mesmerized by the beauty of the girls, and thus ashamed of themselves, the fish began swimming down to the bottom of the pond.

Another beauty, 王昭君 (wāng zhāo jūn), lived during the Han dynasty (汉朝 – Hàn cháo) from 202 BC-220 AD. The king of the Han decided to send Wang Zhaojun to the king of the enemy court so as to avoid a conflict. On her way there, she noticed a wild goose flying above her head. When the goose spotted her, it became so distracted by her beauty that it forgot to flap its wings and thus plummeted to the ground.

Meaning: Today, this idiom is used to describe an incredibly beautiful woman.

Here’s a fun little video that shows you the story of this idiom.


dāi ruò mù jī
“Dumb as a wooden rooster”

Background: Also dating back to the Spring and Autumn period, this story is about a man named 纪子 (Jì zi) who was an expert in the field of training roosters for the purpose of cock-fighting. Well aware of his talents, the king of the Qi hired Ji Zi to train a cock for him. Every 10 days, the king would contact Ji Zi to inquire about the status of his fighting bird. After 40 days had passed the king was sick of waiting, so he paid Ji Zi a visit.

Much to his delight, he was informed that the rooster was ready to rumble. For its first fight, the bird was pitted against the king’s prize-fighter, which drew a huge crowd to the brawl. As the two cocks entered the arena, Ji Zi’s bird stood unfazed, starring straight ahead with its eyes fixated on its opponent. It seemed as if this rooster was actually made of wood, and this terrified the other bird. From then on, no other rooster would dare step in the ring with Ji Zi’s bird.

Meaning: Originally used to describe a high level of concentration, this idiom can now be used to describe the stupefied look of someone who is dumbstruck with fear, terror, or surprise.

One more animated video to help you understand a Chinese idiom!


I hope you’ve enjoyed this post about Chinese idioms! If you know any good Chinese idioms that you’d like to share with us, please feel free to leave a comment below.

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About the Author: sasha

Sasha is an English teacher, writer, photographer, and videographer from the great state of Michigan. Upon graduating from Michigan State University, he moved to China and spent 5+ years living, working, studying, and traveling there. He also studied Indonesian Language & Culture in Bali for a year. He and his wife run the travel blog Grateful Gypsies, and they're currently trying the digital nomad lifestyle across Latin America.

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