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Ten Chinese Idioms to Learn

written by: Nikei Meade • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 9/11/2012

This article presents 10 Mandarin Chinese idioms with analysis and explanation. You'll also find several examples of how to use these idioms in every day speech.

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    The Importance of Idioms to the Chinese Language

    Mandarin Chinese idioms, or 成语 (chengyu), are for the most part four character Chinese sayings that are vital to Chinese writing and to the speaking of Mandarin. Such idioms also are one of the hardest parts of learning Chinese; many Chinese second language learners, or CSL students, struggle with how to use Chinese idioms in daily Mandarin conversations and some students may even neglect to study chengyus all together. For those who are studying Chinese, it is absolutely necessary to learn some common idioms in the Mandarin Chinese language in your primary or elementary Chinese class. Idioms in the Chinese spoken and written language are deeply connected to Chinese culture; knowing the most useful Mandarin Chinese idioms will not only help you communicate more effectively with Mandarin Chinese native speakers, it will also show the native speaker that you know something about Chinese culture.

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    亡羊补牢 (wang2yang2bu3lao2)

    亡羊补牢 is a popular Mandarin idiom that is used in encouraging people to go and accomplish something; it best translates as meaning "better late than never." {wang2 = die}, {yang2 = sheep}, {bu3 = mend, add} and {lao2 = prison}. The saying may seem a little funny after analyzing each character, but keep in mind that each chengyu has a story behind it; being able to say this Mandarin idiom correctly will certainly impress some people. Here are a few examples.

    不要再拖拖拉拉了,亡羊补牢开始。(bu yao zai tuo tuo la la le, wang yang bu lao kai shi). This means the following: Stop putting it off, it's never too late to start.

    如果你觉得你太老学习中文,你要记住亡羊补牢。(ru guo ni jue de ni tai lao xue xi zhong wen, ni yao ji zhu wang yang bu lao). This means the following: If you think you are too old to study Chinese, you should remember that it's better late than never.

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    入乡随俗 (ru4xiang1sui2su2)

    入乡随俗 is a Mandarin saying that is best translated to English as meaning "when in Rome, do as the Romans do." For example, if you are in China and asked if you are accustomed to the habits, food and lifestyle of the country, you can say "入乡随俗“。{ru2 = to enter},{xiang1 = countryside}, {sui2 = follow} and {su2 = customs}. Let's look at a few example sentences of how to use this idiom.

    我在中国住了几年,我已经入乡随俗了。 (wo zai Zhong guo zhu le ji nian, wo yi jing ru xiang sui su le). This sentence translates as the following: I have lived in China for several years, and I have adapted to the native customs.

    当你来到我的国家的时候,你要入乡随俗。 (dang ni lai dao wo de guo jia de shi hou, ni yao ru xiang sui su). This translates as the following: When you come to my country, you should adapt to and follow the local customs.

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    多才多艺 (duo1cai2duo1yi4)

    多才多艺 is an idiom used as an adjective to describe someone who is multi-talented and versatile across a wide range of fields. {duo1 = more}, {cai2 = talent}, {duo1 = more} and {yi4 = craft}. Hence, the more talented one is, the more crafts he or she can master.

    他是一个能说四个语言的科技发明者,真是一个多才多艺人。 (ta shi yi ge neng shuo si ge yu yan de ke ji fa ming zhe, zhen shi yi ge duo cai duo yi ren). This means: He is truly a multi-talented person; he is an inventer in science and technology and can speak four languages.

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    名胜古迹 (ming2sheng4gu3ji4)

    名胜古迹 is a great idiom to use when describing your travels around China and the world. It means "historic sites and scenic spots." {ming2 = name}, {sheng4 = victory}, {gu3 = classic, ancient} and {ji4 = traces, footprints}. Here are a few examples of how to use this popular Mandarin Chinese idiom.

    我们去纽约参观名胜古迹。 (wo men qu niu yue can guan ming sheng gu ji). This means the following: We went to New York to see the historic and scenic sites.

    北京有很多名胜古迹。 (Bei jing you hen duo ming sheng gu ji). This means: Beijing has many places of historic interest and scenic beauty.

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    左右为难 (zuo3you4wei2nan2)

    左右为难 means "to be in a dilemma" or "to be in a difficult situation." {zuo3 = left}, {you4 = right}, {wei2 = for, towards} and {nan2 = difficult}. So, if everything to the right and the left is difficult, you are in a dilemma.

    我真的不知道怎么办,这个事情让我左右为难。 (wo zhen de be zhi dao zen me ban, zhe ge shi qing rang wo zuo you wei nan). This means: I really don't know what to do. This matter has put me in a dilemma.

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    守株待兔 (shou3zhu1dai4tu4)

    守株待兔 literally means to guard a tree-stump waiting for rabbits; figuratively, it best translates as "to wait idly for opportunities" or to "wait for good things to come without doing anything." {shou3 = protect},{zhu1 = tree-root}, {dai4 = to wait} and {tu4 = rabbit}. This idiom specifically talks about those who give their lives to chance and luck, and hence wait for things to come rather than taking initiative. Take at look at how this is used.

    你要追求你自己的梦想,你不要守株待兔。 (ni yao zhui qui ni zi ji de meng xiang, ni bu yao shou zhu dai tu). This means the following: You don't want to wait for good things to come to you; you want to chase your own dreams.

    你快办事,不要守株待兔。 (ni kuai ban shi, bu yao shou zhu dai tu). This means the following: You shouldn't wait for this matter to finish itself, handle it now.

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    二话不说 (er4hua4bu4shuo1)

    二话不说 - this idiom expresses willingness to do something without thinking about it twice. {er4 = two}, {hua4 = speech}, {bu4 = no, don't} and {shuo1 = say, speak}. Here is an example sentence.

    二话不说,我会帮助他。 (er hua bu shuo, wo hui bang zhu ta). This equals: Without thinking twice, I would help him.

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    不由自主 (bu4you2zi4zhu3)

    不由自主 means "can't help" or "involuntarily." {bu4 = no, not}, {you2 = from}, {zi4 = self} and {zhu3 = master, owner}. So if you look at each character, you can see why it means "can't help."

    我不由自主地流下了眼泪。 (wo bu you zi zhu de liu xia le yan lei). This means: I can't help shedding tears or I am unable to hold back my tears.

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    愚公移山 (yu2gong1yi2shan1)

    Literally translating as "the old man moves mountains," this idiom is rooted in a story about an old man who continuously attempted to move two mountains from blocking the pathway to his home; many people laughed at the old man, but he said he has a son who will continue to move this mountain after he has gone, and that his son's son will do the same and so on. Figuratively, this translates as the "where there is a will, there is a way"; this idioms is ultimately about having dogged perseverance.

    如果你想放弃,记住愚公移山。 (ru guo ni xiang fang qi, ji zhu yu gong yi shan). This means: If you want to give up, remember where there is a will, there is a way.

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    杀鸡给猴看 (sha1ji1gei3hou2kan4)

    This is probably the coolest idiom in this article. It literally means to "kill the chicken in front of the monkey"; figuratively, it means "to make an example of somebody through punishment." This can be used in a variety of situations, from discussion about international politics to discussions about work at your office.

    他被老板解雇了,这个就是杀鸡给猴看。 (ta bei lao ban jie gu le, zhe ge jiu shi sha ji gei hou kan). This means: The boss made an example out of him by firing him.

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    References

    Author's Own Experience