Intriguing Idioms – how the smallest of phrases opens windows into Chinese culture. 中国的成语和文化

Idioms, set phrases to describe a certain situation, an expression or turn of phrase which has a non-literal meaning. These phrases, literally understood, often seem nonsensical, but actually they reveal a huge amount about the attitudes and traditions of the culture from which they originate.

Understandably, having one of the oldest written traditions in the world, Mandarin Chinese makes use of hundreds of idioms. When I get stuck with my own language learning, I often turn to idioms as a way of getting things moving again, as they can usually be equated with English sayings, and they’re a great way to build up fluency! Chinese idioms are called chéngyǔ (成语) and are usually made up of four characters.

Idioms can be used in conversation, and picked up in literature. They’re good for reinforcing basic vocabulary and grammar structures, and for picking up new words through the process of deduction. I even learnt a couple of Hindi idioms when I was in India, and attached them (with translations!) to the bottom of my quote board on my old blog. 

Here are some of my favourite Mandarin idioms, with accompanying explanations and English translations;


  • 画蛇添足 – huàshé-tiānzú
  • Translation – “to draw a snake and add feet to it”.
  • Meaning – to overdo something, to ruin the effect of something by adding something superfluous to it.


  • 螳臂当车〔–當車〕tángbì-dāngchē
  • Translation – “a mantis trying to obstruct a chariot”.
  • Meaning – to overrate oneself and try to hold back a superior force. English equivalent – An Aesopic fable, in which a fly sits on a chariot wheel and believes itself t be doing all of the work! These tales could be said to below to a wider genre of “impertinent insect” fables.


  • quote-i-will-have-nought-to-do-with-a-man-who-can-blow-hot-and-cold-with-the-same-breath-aesop-90-73-51


  • 朝三暮四 – zhāosān-mùsì
  • Translation – “to blow hot and cold” (literally: “early morning three, evening four”)
  • Meaning – to be changeable, to “chop and change” – has a direct equivalent in English, with the translation having the same meaning, connotations that the person in question is unreliable, not to be trusted etc. There’s another Mandarin idiom which has an identical meaning – 反复无常 (-復無-) fǎnfù-wúcháng – which means “to behave capriciously”.


  • 讳疾忌医〔諱–醫〕huìjíjìyī.
  • Translation – “hiding a sickness for fear of treatment”.
  • Meaning – I originally thought that it might be something like “to cut off your nose to spite your face”, but actually it means to refuse to listen to advice, and to conceal a fault to avoid criticism of it. Not listening to sound advice is a recurring theme in classical Chinese texts, whereby many military generals have often facilitated their own downfall. Alternatively, refusing to admit that there’s a problem might be to do with fear of losing face, something that’s still prevalent in modern Chinese society.
  • 1423725928178925569
    The Jade Hare. Source.
  • 守株待兔 – shǒuzhū-dàitù
  • Translation – “to stand by a stump waiting for hares to bump into it”.
  • Meaning – to trust that something will happen, to “leave something to luck”. I also found an interesting link to the concept of a “blue moon” in English (and potentially other languages?) that we await a time which might never come, or only occasionally happens “once in a blue moon”.
  • The link here is that hares and rabbits are associated with the moon in Chinese literature, mainly due to the legend of Chang’e ((嫦娥)) the woman in the moon. In classical Chinese literature another name for the moon is “the Jade Hare” [玉兔 yùtù]. A beautiful figure of speech to describe the sunset is “the golden bird of the sun sets in the west, the jade hare of the moon rises in the east” [金乌西坠,玉兔东升 – jīnwūxīzhuì, yùtùdōngshēng].

Before anyone credits me with too much, I looked up these idioms on the Chinese language app Pleco to get the translations! I came across these idioms whilst reading, and even discovered some of them on Pleco whilst searching for other things! You can read my review of Pleco here.

3 thoughts on “Intriguing Idioms – how the smallest of phrases opens windows into Chinese culture. 中国的成语和文化”

  1. I had a colleague, while living in China, who was very serious about following a Confucius way of life, and would often try to express his thinking to me through idioms. His English was also not the greatest, so it was tough to grasp the full meaning of his phrases. It was really interesting reading through these translations and meanings, thanks for sharing!

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    1. Oh that’s so interesting! Yeah, that manner of speaking can be hard to understand. I’m really glad that you enjoyed these idiom translations though, they really do illustrate a very different (and picturesque) way of thinking!

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