10 great Chinese proverbs, sayings and idioms – and their meanings

Many people nowadays express interest in learning the Chinese language. When you think about all the benefits it brings, it is not surprising. The biggest advantage is, of course, the ability to travel across China and learn about the country. Indeed, you can ask for a translator or a guide. But speaking with people in the country you are visiting gives you more autonomy. It also allows you to delve deeper into the culture by reading novels, poetry, watching films, and playing games such as the Chinese variation of automatenspiele.

Now, when you decide to learn Chinese, you need to be aware that you are learning one of the most difficult languages in the world. It is also the language of one of the world’s most ancient cultures. That said, it shouldn’t be surprising that it is rich in a wide range of Chinese idioms represent in this culture.

Learning a language is practically impossible without touching at least a bit of the culture. Therefore if you embark on an adventure of learning Chinese, make sure to include idioms to sound as fluent as natural as possible. In this post, you will find a list of 10 useful Chinese idioms that will help you get started.

What Are Chinese Idioms?

Some people confuse proverbs and idioms, but they are not the same. Though both carry a certain level of wisdom, idioms consist of four letters, and proverbs are usually longer. When talking about Chinese idioms, we have chengyu (成语) in mind, which roughly translates to “formed words.” They are generally taken from classical Chinese and date thousands of years back. You can easily identify Chinese idioms because they represent condensed stories that most people know. If we were to look for a parallel in English, it would be “Boy who cried wolf.” Everyone knows this story and what happened to the boy, right? So, when you tell someone not to “cry wolf”, they will know what you mean. It is the same with these practical Chinese idioms.

Everyone who speaks Chinese knows at least some idioms. But if you know plenty and know how to use them properly, people will see you as eloquent and highly educated. Here are some of the most known and interesting chengyu and their meanings.

Hú Jiă Hŭ Wēi (狐假虎威) – Fake Fox, Powerful Tiger

You are likely to be utterly confused once you hear this for the first time because it sounds like four words have no connection whatsoever. A bit like the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And yes, indeed, it sounds strange if you don’t know the story which inspired it. A tiger met a fox and thought he would have a nice meal. But the fox was quick and told him that all forest animals were afraid of her and invited him to follow her to see that she was telling the truth. When they arrived at the forest, all animals ran away, and the tiger believed they were afraid of the fox. He was oblivious to the fact that it was him causing fear. It describes a situation where someone claims to be powerful because the powerful patron supports them. For example, someone in your office can be arrogant because they know that the boss supports them.

Jĭng Dĭ Zhī Wā (井底之蛙) – A Frog in the Bottom of a Well

It is a critical idiom. People say this when they want to criticize someone who has a closed mind or limited views on life and the world that surrounds us. For example, if you meet someone who still believes that women should only raise kids, you can say that they live like a frog in the bottom of a well. It can apply to different types of prejudiced opinions.

Duì Niú Tán Qín (对牛弹琴) – Playing the Qin to a Cow

This is one of the highly useful Chinese idioms and means playing a qin to a cow. Qin is a traditional Chinese instrument. Originally, it was used to say that it is futile to explain Buddhist scriptures to someone who has never read them. Today, we can use it to describe a situation where someone addresses the wrong audience or says something that the listeners don’t grasp.

Yuán Mù Qiú Yú (缘木求鱼) – Climbing Trees to Catch Fish

We could say that this idiom is pretty self-explanatory. When someone climbs trees to catch a fish, they are taking the wrong approach to do something. For example, if someone uses aggression at work to increase productivity, we can say that they climb trees to catch a fish.

Huà Shĕ Tiān Zú (画蛇添足) – Draw Snake, Add Feet

Have you heard this Chinese idiom already? It is pretty common, and people use it when they want to say that the effects of something are spoiled by overdoing or adding unnecessary details. It is inspired by the story of a painter who lost the competition even if he finished the painting of a snake first. After seeing that others were still working, he continued to paint to add feet. However, this took a long time, and in the end, he finished last.

Bái Shǒu Qǐ Jiā (白手起家 ) – To Start From Scratch

This is familiar, isn’t it? Indeed, some idioms are the same worldwide. Chinese people primarily use this in business when they are describing someone who started the business with few resources. When do you use it?

Wò Hŭ Cáng Long (卧虎藏龙) – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Though we mentioned the move already, it is not possible to talk about Chinese idioms without explaining wò hŭ cáng long (卧虎藏龙). It refers to a situation where people seem to be humble, but are incredibly powerful in fact.

Bàn Tú Er Fèi (半途而废) – To Start Doing Something and Then Give Up Halfway

Well, we have all been in this situation, haven’t we?! Sometimes things seem too challenging, and we simply give up on them. There is also a sentence that advises us to never give up on the task.

Yà Miáo Zhù Zhăng (揠苗助长) – Pulling Shoots to Help them Grow

This chengyu means that if you want your plants to grow, you shouldn’t pull their shoots because it will destroy them. But of course, it doesn’t refer only to gardening. You risk destroying the project if you overdo something or are too zealous.

Xiào Lĭ Cáng Dāo (笑里藏刀) – Daggers Hidden in Smiles

This is yet another one of Chinese idioms with pretty clear meaning. It means Machiavellian ideas are often hidden behind smiley faces. We all know this kind of hypocritical people who hide behind friendly behavior.

Bottom Line

Did you get enough Chinese idioms? It takes years to learn Chinese idioms. But if your goal is to become a fluent Chinese speaker, be it for fun or business, keep in mind that they are the indicator of eloquence and education. Nonetheless, even if you know just a few, your Chinese friends will be impressed. Do you know some idioms? Why would you like to learn Chinese?


Thomas Glare is fluent in 6 foreign languages and understands a dozen more. He easily uses his abilities, switching from one language to another, like a chameleon changing his coloring. In general, for a long time, his colleagues did not even know that he was an Englishman. When one of them told him that he still could not learn a second language, he winked merrily and happily gave the fellow some advice from his experience.