Chengyu in Chinese: Expand Your Vocabulary with Mandarin Idioms

Bodhi Ramos13 min
Created: Dec 12, 2023Last updated: Dec 12, 2023
Chinese Idioms

Chinese idioms, commonly known as Chengyu (chéngyǔ), are essential in Mandarin learning. These phrases pack centuries of culture and wisdom into succinct expressions. Understanding idioms can greatly enhance one’s grasp of the language. They elevate your Mandarin from basic to nuanced, so mastering them is a stepping stone to attaining proficiency. In this article, you will explore some popular Chinese idioms – we will uncover their meanings, origins, and how to apply them in daily conversations. 

Understanding Chengyu

Mandarin idioms, or 成语 (chéngyǔ), are four-character expressions deeply rooted in Chinese history and literature. Originating from various sources such as ancient myths, historical events, and philosophical texts, they are linguistic expressions and reflections of Chinese culture and values.

The vast number of chéngyǔ, estimated between 5,000 and 20,000, makes them a challenging yet fascinating aspect of Mandarin. The precise construction of these idioms makes them unique. Unlike casual speech, their structure is tightly-knit, often following a rhythmic and poetic pattern. This characteristic makes them memorable and lends a certain elegance to the language.

Despite their ancient origins, Chinese idioms remain relevant in modern Mandarin. They frequently appear in the media, literature, and daily conversations, demonstrating their enduring appeal and adaptability. Understanding these expressions is crucial for learners – it’s not just about language proficiency but also about gaining insights into Chinese thought and philosophy.

Mandarin Idioms in Everyday Language

The everyday use of idioms highlights their relevance and vitality. These phrases, while rooted in traditional culture, resonate with modern life. Let’s dive into some commonly used ones: 

  • 脚踏实地 (jiǎo tà shí dì) – Down to earth

This idiom emphasizes the importance of being practical and realistic. It means ‘to step on solid ground,’ symbolizing a grounded approach to life or tasks. It’s often used to commend someone’s practical nature or to advise a pragmatic approach.

他总是脚踏实地地工作,因此成绩斐然。(Tā zǒng shì jiǎotàshídì de gōngzuò, yīncǐ chéngjì fěirán.) – He always works in a down-to-earth manner, hence his remarkable achievements.

  • 画蛇添足 (huà shé tiān zú) – Drawing feet on a snake

This phrase warns against overdoing something or adding unnecessary details, which can backfire. It stems from a fable where someone added legs to a snake painting, making it look odd. This term is often used as advice or constructive criticism.

她的解释反而让情况更糟,真是画蛇添足。(Tā de jiěshì fǎn’ér ràng qíngkuàng gèng zāo, zhēn shì huàshétiānzú.) – Her explanation made things worse; it was truly like drawing feet on a snake.

  • 开门见山 (kāi mén jiàn shān) – Get straight to the point

Meaning ‘open the door, see the mountain,’ this idiom is used to describe a direct manner of speaking.

他总是喜欢开门见山,不绕弯子。(Tā zǒng shì xǐhuān kāiménjiànshān, bù rào wānzi.) – He always likes to get straight to the point, without beating around the bush.

  • 三思而后行 (sān sī ér hòu xíng) – Think twice before acting

This idiom advises careful consideration before action, translating to ‘think twice before you act.’ This wise phrase is often used to guide or offer mature advice.

在做出重要决定之前,我们应该三思而后行。(Zài zuò chū zhòngyào juédìng zhīqián, wǒmen yīnggāi sānsī’érhòuxíng.) – Before making important decisions, we should think twice.

  • 滴水之恩,涌泉相报 (dī shuǐ zhī ēn, yǒng quán xiāng bào) – Repay kindness profoundly

This idiom highlights the virtue of gratitude, suggesting that even a small favor deserves a generous repayment. It reflects the value of kindness and the importance of acknowledging and reciprocating goodwill in Chinese culture.

他对我的一点小帮助,我都会滴水之恩,涌泉相报。(Tā duì wǒ de yīdiǎn xiǎo bāngzhù, wǒ dūhuì dīshuǐzhīēn, yǒngquánxiāngbào.) – For the little help he gave me, I will repay him profoundly.

  • 不劳而获 (bù láo ér huò) – Gain without effort

Criticizing the act of receiving rewards without contributing effort, this idiom is a reminder of the value of hard work and the disapproval of shortcuts to success. It is often used to teach the importance of earning one’s achievements.

社会上没有不劳而获的事。(Shèhuì shàng méiyǒu bù láo ér huò de shì.) – There is no such thing as gaining without effort in society.

  • 一见钟情 (yí jiàn zhōng qíng) – Love at first sight

This idiom is used to describe immediate romantic attraction. The literal translation is ‘one look, fall in love,’ reflecting the spontaneity and intensity of such feelings.

他们一见钟情,很快就决定结婚了。(Tāmen yí jiàn zhōng qíng, hěn kuài jiù juédìng jiéhūn le.) – They fell in love at first sight and quickly decided to get married.

  • 显而易见 (xiǎn’ér yì jiàn) – Obvious and clear

This phrase means ‘clear and easy to see.’ It describes something very apparent or self-evident without further explanation or proof.

这个问题的答案是显而易见的。(Zhège wèntí de dá’àn shì xiǎn’éryìjiàn de.) – The answer to this question is obvious.

  • 自由自在 (zì yóu zì zài) – Free and easy

The phrase describes being comfortable, relaxed, and free from constraints. It evokes a sense of ease and freedom, where one can act without pressure or restriction.

在乡下,他感到非常自由自在。(Zài xiāngxià, tā gǎndào fēicháng zìyóuzìzài.) – In the countryside, he feels very free and easy.

  • 如鱼得水 (rú yú dé shuǐ) – Like a fish in water

It means to be in one’s natural or ideal environment, where everything feels right and effortless. It’s often used to describe someone thriving in their surroundings or situation, much like a fish swimming effortlessly in water.

在这个新的工作岗位上,他感觉就像是如鱼得水。(Zài zhège xīn de gōngzuò gǎngwèi shàng, tā gǎnjué jiù xiàng shì rú yú dé shuǐ.) – In this new job position, he feels like a fish in water.

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Animal-Inspired Idioms in Chinese

The Mandarin language has a collection of animal-inspired phrases. These expressions capture human characteristics, societal phenomena, or life insights through the lens of animal behaviors and traits. Here are some Chinese idiom examples to expand your chéngyǔ vocabulary:

  • 狐假虎威 (hú jiǎ hǔ wēi) – The fox borrows the tiger’s might

This idiom describes someone who uses another’s power to intimidate. It comes from a story where a fox uses the tiger’s reputation to scare other animals. It’s often applied to situations where someone leverages authority that isn’t theirs.

利用老板的名义去命令别人,这就是狐假虎威。(Lìyòng lǎobǎn de míngyì qù mìnglìng biérén, zhè jiùshì hú jiǎ hǔ wēi.) – Using the boss’s name to order others around is just like a fox borrowing the tiger’s might.

  • 龙马精神 (lóng mǎ jīngshén) – The spirit of the dragon and horse

This idiom symbolizes vigor and great energy, akin to the mythical power of dragons and the strength of horses. It’s used to describe someone with an enthusiastic and lively spirit.

他工作时总是充满龙马精神。(Tā gōngzuò shí zǒng shì chōngmǎn lóng mǎ jīngshén.) – He always works with the spirit of a dragon and horse.

  • 猫哭老鼠 (māo kū lǎo shǔ) – A cat weeping over a dead mouse

The phrase refers to feigning compassion or pity while being pleased with someone’s misfortune. It’s akin to a cat pretending to mourn the mouse it just caught.

他对竞争对手失败表现出同情,实际上却是猫哭老鼠。(Tā duì jìngzhēng duìshǒu shībài biǎoxiàn chū tóngqíng, shíjì shàng què shì māo kū lǎo shǔ.) – He shows sympathy for his competitor’s failure, but in reality, it’s like a cat weeping over a dead mouse.

  • 狗急跳墙 (gǒu jí tiào qiáng) – A dog in desperation leaps over a wall

It illustrates someone taking extreme measures when desperate. Commonly, the phrase is used to describe actions taken when in a critical or dire situation.

逼急了,好人也会狗急跳墙。(Bī jíle, hǎo rén yě huì gǒu jí tiào qiáng.) – Even good people will leap over a wall in desperation when pushed too far.

  • 鹤立鸡群 (hè lì jī qún) – A crane standing among chickens

It describes someone who stands out in a group due to their superior qualities. It paints a picture of a graceful crane towering above a flock of chickens.

他在团队中才华横溢,真是鹤立鸡群。(Tā zài tuánduì zhōng cáihuá héngyì, zhēn shì hè lì jī qún.) – He is so talented in the team, truly a crane standing among chickens.

  • 马马虎虎 (mǎ mǎ hǔ hǔ) – Horse horse, tiger tiger

This expression is used to describe something as just fair or average. It can be utilized when you don’t want to make a definitive statement about the quality of something.

这个餐馆的食物马马虎虎,不是特别好也不差。(Zhège cānguǎn de shíwù mǎ ma hǔhū, búshì tèbié hao yě bú chà.) – The food in this restaurant is so-so, not particularly good but also not bad.

  • 马到成功 (mǎ dào chéng gōng) – Success at horse’s arrival

It is usually used to wish someone success with an imminent attempt or endeavor, similar to saying ‘break a leg’ in English. 

他的考试就在明天,我希望他能马到成功。(Tā de kǎoshì jiù zài míngtiān,wǒ xīwàng tā néng mǎdào chénggōng.) – His exam is tomorrow; I hope he finds success as sure as the horse’s arrival.

Mandarin Idioms with Numbers

Chinese expressions often utilize numbers to portray different metaphors. While being quite charming in their own right, these numeric phrases can add a touch of precision or exaggeration, depending on context. You’ll find some of these Chinese idioms in English below:

  • 一石二鸟 (yī shí èr niǎo) – One stone, two birds

Equivalent to ‘kill two birds with one stone,’ this idiom represents efficiency or achieving two goals with a single action. It describes a situation where one can obtain dual benefits from one effort.

通过这个计划,我们可以一石二鸟。(Tōngguò zhège jìhuà, wǒmen kěyǐ yī shí èr niǎo.) – Through this plan, we can achieve two goals with one effort.

  • 三心二意 (sān xīn èr yì) – Three hearts, two minds

This idiom describes someone who is indecisive or has wavering attention. It suggests a lack of focus or commitment.

做事不能三心二意。(Zuòshì bùnéng sān xīn èr yì.) – One must not be indecisive when doing things.

  • 五颜六色 (wǔ yán liù sè) – Five colors, six hues

This phrase describes something extremely colorful or varied. It’s often used to refer to something diverse or multifaceted.

市场上的商品五颜六色,应有尽有。(Shìchǎng shàng de shāngpǐn wǔ yán liù sè, yīng yǒu jìn yǒu.) – The products on the market are of various colors and varieties.

  • 七上八下 (qī shàng bā xià) – Seven up, eight down

Used to describe a state of confusion or disarray, this expression depicts an unsettled or chaotic mind.

听到这个消息后,他心里七上八下。(Tīng dào zhège xiāoxī hòu, tā xīnlǐ qī shàng bā xià.) – Hearing this news, his mind was in a state of turmoil.

  • 九牛一毛 (jiǔ niú yī máo) – Nine cows, one fur

It is akin to the English phrase ‘a drop in the ocean,’ signifying something very small or insignificant compared to the larger whole.

这点小钱对他来说,不过是九牛一毛。(Zhè diǎn xiǎo qián duì tā láishuō, bùguò shì jiǔ niú yī máo.) – This small amount of money is nothing but a drop in the ocean for him.

  • 十全十美 (shí quán shí měi) – Ten out of ten

Symbolizing perfection or completeness, this idiom is used to describe something flawless or ideal.

她的表演被认为是十全十美。(Tā de biǎoyǎn bèi rènwéi shì shí quán shí měi.) – Her performance is considered perfect.

  • 百闻不如一见 (bǎi wén bùrú yī jiàn) – A hundred hearsay is not as good as one seeing

This expression, equivalent to ‘seeing is believing,’ emphasizes the importance of personal experience over rumors or descriptions.

这件事情,还是让他亲自看看吧。毕竟,百闻不如一见。(Zhè jiàn shìqing, háishì ràng tā qínzì kànkàn ba. Bìjìng, bǎi wén bùrú yī jiàn.) – Let him see this matter for himself. After all, seeing is believing.

  • 千言万语 (qiān yán wàn yǔ) – Thousands of words and tens of thousands of phrases 

It refers to many words or a lot to say. The idiom portrays an intense desire to express feelings and thoughts but struggling with how exactly to convey them.

我们虽然有千言万语要说,但时间真的太紧张了。(Wǒmen suīrán yǒu qiān yán wàn yǔ yào shuō, dàn shíjiān zhēn de tài jǐnzhāng le.) – Although we have a lot to say, time is really pressing.

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Conclusion

Famous Chinese idioms are cultural gems, embedding centuries of wisdom and storytelling. From love at first sight to being as comfortable as a fish in water, these expressions enrich Mandarin with vivid imagery and profound meanings. They bridge past and present and offer insights into Chinese thought and values. So, don’t overlook the power and beauty of chengyu. By mastering these idioms, you can enhance your command of the language and deepen your understanding and appreciation of the culture. 

FAQ

How can learning Chinese idioms improve language proficiency?

It improves the ability to comprehend and engage in more sophisticated conversations. Idioms add richness to communication, allowing learners to express complex ideas succinctly and accurately, a crucial aspect of fluency in any language.

How can non-native speakers practice using Chinese idioms?

You can practice using these expressions by incorporating them into daily conversation and writing. Engaging with native speakers, watching Chinese media, and reading literature can also provide contextual understanding. Regular practice and seeking feedback from proficient speakers are key to mastering their use.

Is there a difference between proverbs and idioms in Chinese?

Yes, there’s a distinction. Idioms are typically four-character expressions with fixed structures and specific meanings. Proverbs, on the other hand, are longer sayings that offer advice or wisdom.

Where can I find more Chinese idioms to learn?

Several online resources are available for those eager to delve deeper into common Chinese idioms. One popular choice is YellowBridge, which offers an extensive dictionary with meanings and examples. Another helpful site is Arch Chinese, which provides interactive learning tools. The Chinese language learning app by Promova is also a viable option, where guided courses will help you grasp idioms and enrich your vocabulary.

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