Chinese Idioms - The Ultimate Beginner's Guide

Idioms are sayings that develop within a language over generations. They add flavor to the language while expressing complicated ideas using humor and sarcasm. They make the language Mandarin Chinese interesting and fun. Chinese idioms, called “Chengyu,” are a unique language that all Chinese people share. Like insider jokes, they lie at the heart of Chinese culture. The old idioms are golden, and new ones keep getting added to the list. You might think Chinese idioms are out of fashion, but you would be surprised to know that they are very much in trend in the 21st century.

Idioms in Chinese Culture

The word “Chengyu” in Mandarin Chinese means “set expressions.” And each idiom has a story or a life lesson behind it, passed from generation to generation through classical Chinese literature and historical texts. Chengyu is an older version of the commonly used Mandarin Chinese characters. At first, they seem to be grammatically incorrect, but only to those who do not understand Chinese idioms, as they do not know the deeper meaning behind the words. Chinese idioms are the carriers of the essence of olden Chinese wisdom and knowledge.

Origin of Chinese Idioms

The origin of Chinese idioms can be traced back from the common tongue of the crowds to the historical roots of dynasties. Most Chinese idioms originated in either mythical tales or religious texts. Other known sources include ancient literature and Confucius’s teachings and sayings. The interpretations of the original idioms have evolved with time and gained contemporary meanings. They have a timeless quality about them, like legends. Having a basic idea about Chinese history and culture can bring sense to Chinese idioms. Without proper context, they can look like gibberish. A simple Chinese idiom can refer to something as important as the Qin Dynasty rebellion.

Importance of Chinese Idioms

Chinese idioms represent the wisdom of many words into four characters. They are given a lot of importance in Chinese culture due to their origin in Chinese literature, religion, and history. Even today, their significance lies in their expression. When used in daily conversations, they still carry the gravity of the stories of battle, dynasties, love, loss, and the lessons learned throughout history. A short phrase in Mandarin Chinese has the power to transgress the boundaries of time and keep the glory of the past alive.

Five Famous Chinese Idioms

There are many Chinese idioms in use today. Here is our list of the top 5 famous idioms:

  1. 卧虎藏龙 – wò hǔ cáng lóng – A place full of people with absurd talents. It is a sarcastic comment referring to a crowd of unusual people gathered in one place.
  2. 废寝忘食 – fèi qǐn wàng shí – To sacrifice meals for the sake of dedication and hard work, the virtue of a diligent person. It glorifies sincerity of purpose and intention. It also refers to the willpower of a person.
  3. 七嘴八舌 – qī zuǐ bā shé – a satire at a situation where everyone is speaking at the same time, and no one is listening. It is used to indirectly comment at an unruly crowd making noise because everybody wants to be heard.
  4. 千山万水 – qiān shān wàn shuǐ – A tiring and unending journey. It symbolizes perseverance through struggle. It means that efforts have to be made regardless of the results, and you cannot give in to hopelessness due to the long journey.
  5. 惊弓之鸟 – jīng gōng zhī niǎo – Once you have been hurt, next time you will hesitate before doing the same thing. After getting hurt or damaged in any way due to a mistake made by you, you will be apprehensive about making the same mistake again.

Five Chinese Idioms used in English

You will be surprised to know that many of the idioms we use in English have come from Chinese sayings. They may not be the same, literally, but they convey a similar message. Here are 5 Chinese idioms used in the English language.

  1. When Pigs Fly – 除非太阳从西边出来 – Chú feī tài yáng cóng xī biān chū lái – When the sun rises from the west. An impossible event. This idiom is used to express astonishment or amusement at something that had an extremely rare chance of happening.
  2. Double-edged sword – 水能载舟,亦能覆舟 – shuǐ néng zài zhōu, yì néng fù zhōu – The water that carries a boat can also drown it. There are two aspects to the same thing that are contrary in nature. There is a negative and a positive side to everything.
  3. An apple a day keeps the doctor away – 冬吃萝卜夏吃姜, 不用医生开药方 – dōng chī luó bo xià chī jiāng, bú yòng yī shēng kaī yào fāng – Carrots in the winter and ginger in the summer, will spare the doctor’s prescription. Prevention is better than cure, and healthy habits should be a way of life.
  4. Small potatoes – 鸡毛蒜皮 – jī máo suàn pí – Chicken feathers and garlic peel. Minor problems, situations that can be easily handled. Small potatoes, chicken feathers, and garlic peels all suggest trifling matters. It conveys that time and resources should not be spent on inconsequential issues.
  5. Love at first sight – 一见钟情 – yí jiàn zhōng qíng – One look, and deep in love. The idiom suggests that people fall in love immediately at their first meeting. It refers to the intense infatuation we feel when looking at someone who immensely attracts us.

How to use Chinese Idioms?

Like in any other language, Chinese idioms emphasize particular complex emotions in daily conversations. They might be used to express anger in an argument or motivate someone not to give up. Furthermore, language-specific expressions may even be used to show off your knowledge of Chinese classics. Without the usage of phrases, a conversation will be dry and uninteresting. It adds meaning and humor to conversations. You might risk creating misunderstandings if you misuse them without knowing their context. Chinese idioms are used independently, conveying deep meanings in very few words.


There are more than five thousand Chinese idioms that are in use today. Each idiom is a storehouse of knowledge, wisdom, and a clear reflection of Chinese culture. Idioms are constructed so that they only make sense if you know the context. Otherwise, you will miss the nuances, the subtle humor, and the cultural references conveyed in an idiom. Chengyu is an essential component of the Mandarin Chinese language.

Chinese idioms are a world to discover within themselves. Help your child explore Chinese culture and the Mandarin Chinese language with LingoAce.

Each lesson your child takes with us is a product of over 100 hours of curriculum creation, courseware production, mock teaching, teacher training, and quality control (QC) rounds.

Experience a redefined Mandarin Chinese learning experience first-hand through a free trial lesson with us today.

Recommended for you