10 Common Chinese Idioms Also Useful In English
Studying idioms is very rewarding for children and adults alike. It’s finding familiar things in unfamiliar places.
Language barriers prevent us from communicating with other people, yet finding those points of intersection in the language can bring down these obstacles.
Learning about a new culture is exciting because it’s like travelling. Although instead of your body moving, it’s your mind, and just like when you visit an unknown country, you can still discover a great many new things.
The ability to read Chinese idioms or “chengyu” is valued in China. It reveals not only your language skills but also your intelligence.
For all the differences you read about in the news, English Culture and Chinese culture share common wisdom through these idioms below.
Here’s a list of our favourite Chinese expressions with English equivalents that reveal how common these ideas are among us, regardless of race.
What is Chinese Chengyu?
成语 (Chéngyǔ) or Chengyu is a Chinese idiom. It constitutes four Chinese characters and introduces a Chinese history and legend story.
The Chinese are proud of their history and language. Recognising that Chengyu links the two together, there is no surprise that Chinese idioms are essential in Chinese traditional culture.
In China, you will meet local people who speak Chengyu when presenting a toast, teaching at school or providing friendly advice.
Below are 10 Chinese idioms worth studying when learning the Chinese language.
10 Chinese Idioms To Memorise Quickly
1. 冬吃萝卜夏吃姜, 不用医生开药方 – An apple a day keeps the doctor away
Literal Translation: “Eat radish in winter and ginger in summer, and you won’t need a doctor’s prescription.”
Pronuciation: Dōng chī luóbo xià chī jiāng, bùyòng yīshēng kāi yàofāng
This idiom explains that both Chinese and English cultures focus on nutrition to avoid seeing the doctor.
Although as Physician Zhou Xun says, don’t be too concerned with following the exact words of eating radishes (sometimes it’s listed as ‘carrots’) or ginger, but rather, to eat hot and cold in balance, as per the needs of our body, regardless of the season.
The bottom line is, by paying attention to our diet, we keep our vitality, and we don’t have to bother the doctor!
2. 路平安 – Have a safe and pleasant journey
Literal Translation: Safe Trip
Pronuciation: Lù píng’ān
Use this phrase when saying “GoodBye” to someone going for a vacation or on a trip. When you board the plane, train, or leave the hotel in China. You may likely hear this phrase.
Most Chinese also use, “一路顺风 / yīlù shùnfēng (translated as ‘Smooth road‘). This farewell is like the popular French “Bon voyage!”.
3. 一石二鸟 – Kill two birds with one stone
Literal Translation: One stone, Two birds
Pronuciation: yì shí èr niăo
Chéng yŭ phrase reduces the language to the most primitive form. This simplification is beneficial for children learning the meanings of idioms. This well-known saying is about being smart with your task management and timing. It’s also about being crafty and accurate with your decision making so you can address or solve multiple problems at once.
4. 说曹操，曹操就到 – Speak of the devil and he shall appear
Literal Translation: Say Cao Cao, Cao Cao will come
Pronuciation: Shuō cáocāo, cáocāo jiù dào
Although a bit of a tongue twister, this Chinese idiom is straightforward and easily used. This idiom is used when talking about someone and arriving suddenly from nowhere.
5. 叶公好龙 – To pretend to like something (to play along)
Literal Translation: Ye Gong adores the dragon (Chinese people understand it to refer to someone who only pretends to love something outwardly)
There are times in life when we pretend to like someone or something despite actually hating it. One example is if your friends want to eat at a particular fast-food restaurant – one that you dislike – but you go with them so as not to spoil their enjoyment.
6. 三思而后行 – Think before you act
Literal Translation: Think Twice
Pronuciation: Sān sī érhòu xíng
Sān sī (三思) in Chinese means careful rethinking or consideration. It is a good phrase for any friend who is about to make a spontaneous and significant decision.
7. 自食其果 – To reap what you sow
Literal Translation: Eat your own fruit
This is something to use sparingly. The connotation is a lot more serious than in English. In English, we may jokingly say “Karma” to someone but this idiom in Chinese is saying something heavier; something like “Take your consequences, you have brought this upon yourself”.
8. 百年好合 – Live a long and happy life together
Literal Translation: Hundred Years of Harmony
Pronuciation: Bǎinián hǎo hé
It is an appropriate idiom to use for someone who got married recently. Hence, if you are attending a Chinese wedding, you must say this to the newlyweds.
9. 恭喜发财 – Have a prosperous New Year!
Literal Translation: May you attain greater wealth
Pronuciation: gōngxǐ fācái
Take notice of the way the Chinese toast during the Spring Festival. If you attend a Chinese New Year celebration, you can also raise your glass and use this famous phrase in the responses. Or, when your host greets you with good luck and health, things can turn a bit quiet if you have nothing to say in return.
10. 鸡毛蒜皮 – Small potatoes
Literal Translation: Trivial skin
Some problems seem significant, but they may be much smaller in reality. Later you might discover that they are not a big issue. Westerners may use the term “small potato” to underscore the insignificance of an event or action.
In the Chinese version, kitchen scraps like chicken feathers and garlic peels are used. So if someone shows up with very little food for a social dinner or work ‘shout’, this might be something said about that person.
It’s also used for discussing superficial conversations or trifling matters. A bit like ‘small talk’.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here, we have mentioned some essential common questions related to Chengyu:
1. Define Chengyu?
It is a four-character idiom. There could be exceptions for more characters, although four characters are the norm.
2. How many Chinese Idioms can be learned?
Generally, you can learn thousands of Chinese Idioms. But, it is not possible to know them all. Better to find the popular ones and use them in daily life.
3. Is it important to learn Chengyu?
It is helpful to understand Chengyu, but it is not necessary. Focus on the fundamentals of Mandarin until you become an average or high-level speaker. The main advantage of learning idioms and enhancing your Chinese level can also enrich your understanding of Chinese history.
4. How many Chinese Idioms are essential to memorise?
Learning general vocabulary would be sufficient for Mandarin speakers who have memorised some Chinese idioms. You must understand idioms as a “nice to have” skill, furthermore growing your vocabulary is required.
Chinese idioms, also known as chengyu, are very important for Chinese culture. If you want to enhance your knowledge of the language and history of Mandarin or simply impress the locals during your trip to China, try learning chengyu.
If you want to learn these idioms or go further and learn the Chinese language, then Easylore has tutors standing by for you.