I previously made an effort to not learn Chinese idioms as I assumed they weren’t used in conversation.
However the more I learned Mandarin, the more I realised that idioms do crop up in daily language, with some appearing more than others.
So I thought I would document some commonly used idioms that I believe are worth learning. Most idioms come from stories so I thought I would share some of the stories that I found interesting as well.
Not only is this idiom useful to know, it can keep you motivated!
It’s literally translated as: Skilled ability grows with time.
But it’s meaning in English would be practice makes perfect.
There was once a skilled archer. One day he drew a big crowd while practicing. He shot so accurately that the on-lookers cheered, and he became very proud of his skill.
However, among the crowd was an old oil peddler who merely nodded his head indifferently, hurting the archers pride.
“Can you do this?” he asked the old oil peddler.
“No, I can’t”
“What do you think of my skill?”
“Just okay, but nothing special. You’ve gained your accuracy from persistent practice, that’s all.”
“What can you do then?”
The old man said nothing. He put a gourd bottle on the ground and covered it’s mouth with a copper coin. He then scooped a ladle of oil from his big jar, held it high and began to fill the bottle. Now, a thread of oil came down from the ladle into the bottle just through the hole of the coin.
Everybody watched with amazement, but the old man said: “this is nothing special, I can do this because i have practiced it a lot“.
With these words, he left.
Translated literally, it means “cannot imagine”.
This is regarded in a positive way, with the actual meaning of the idiom meaning something is noteworthy or amazing to the point that it’s inconceivable.
For example, I met someone with almost the exact same Chinese name as me, and I remember he used this phrase to describe it.
There’s no point translating this one character by character, as it doesn’t make much sense that way. This means that something is a complete and utter mess.
It can be used to describe abstract things such as a messy life, or ‘real’ tangible things, such as a messy floor.
This idiom is used to describe people who are unable to see the bigger picture, mistaking a part for the whole.
It can be literally translated as “blind men touching an elephant” and from the story, you will understand why.
A group of blind men gathered around an elephant, trying to figure out what the creature looked like. One of them happened to touch one of the tusks, and said “An elephant is just like a turnip”.
Another touched one of the elephant’s ears, and said “it is like a big fan”.
One put his arms around one of the beast’s legs and said “it is like a column”.
One happened to place his hands on the body of the elephant and said “it is like a wall.”
The final one got hold of the elephant’s tail, declaring it a snake.
Then they fell to arguing with each other.
This can be literally translated as “A Hu speaks of the eight-fold path”.
Hu is a pre-Han dynasty word meaning ‘non-Chinese’. This idiom was originally intended to be critical of a foreigner describing something they didn’t understand (in this case the Eight-fold path of Buddhism).
The idiom now more generally means to talk nonsense.
These are about 5,000 idioms in the Chinese language. 5000!
I’ve only shown you 5 today. However I think these five idioms are useful to know, and have some interesting back stories too.
If you liked this blog post and want more of this kind of content from the blog, let me know below and I’ll bring a part 2.
Want more tips and resources to learn Chinese?