10 Funny Chinese Idioms You Should Know

Chinese is a beautifully complex language, rich with history, culture, and a whole lot of humor! Chinese idioms, known as "chéng yǔ," are an integral part of the language. These are short phrases, usually composed of four characters, that convey a significant traditional message or moral. 

Let's explore some interesting Chinese idioms and their meanings - idioms that might make you giggle, raise an eyebrow, and definitely up your Chinese skills to impress any native speaker!

  1. "Zì xū yíng yǒng" (自吹营营)

    Literal translation: “Blow Your Own Cow”
    In English, we might say "toot your own horn" when someone is self-promoting or bragging about their abilities. The Chinese version, however, involves livestock and is roughly translated as "blow your own cow". It's simply a humorous way of saying someone is singing their own praises.

  2. Wàng wò qī yuán (望洋兴叹)

    Literal translation: “Looking at the Ocean and Sighing”
    In China, when you're feeling a little overwhelmed, you might say you're "looking at the ocean and sighing." It describes the feeling of facing a task so large that it feels impossible, much like trying to comprehend the enormity of the ocean.

  3. Pāi mǎ pì (拍马屁")

    Literally translation: "patting the horse's butt."
    It's used colloquially to describe the act of flattering or buttering someone up to gain favor, equivalent to the English term "brown-nosing". 

  4. Huǒ shàng jiā yóu (火上加油)

    Literal translation: “Adding Oil to Fire”
    This is the equivalent of the English idiom "adding fuel to the fire," used when someone is making a situation worse. It's interesting to note the universal human experience of inflaming a situation represented metaphorically in both languages.

  5. Dǎ cǎo jīng shé (打草惊蛇)

    Literal translation: “Hit the Grass and Scare the Snake In Chinese”
    You don't let the cat out of the bag; you hit the grass and scare the snake. This idiom advises against acting rashly or prematurely, as it might alert others and spoil your plans. So, next time you're about to spill the beans, remember not to scare the snake!

  6. Máng rén mò xiàng (盲人摸象)

    Literal translation: “Blind Men Touching an Elephant”
    This idiom is used to describe a situation where people who are unable to see the big picture. It paints an amusing picture of individuals trying to understand an elephant by feeling different parts of its body, each drawing distinct and entirely inaccurate conclusions.

  7. Huā shé tiān zu" (画蛇添足)

    Literal translation:“Drawing Snakes with Feet” Imagine a snake with feet. Strange, right? This idiom is based on an old fable about a man who added feet to his drawing of a snake during a competition and lost because snakes don't have feet. This is similar to the English slag "extra” or “over the top” and is used when someone unnecessarily overdoes something, that ends up causing more harm than good.

  8. Yī yán jì chū, sì mǎ nán zhuī (一言既出,驷马难追)

    Literal translation: "Once a word leaves your mouth, even four horses can't chase it down."
    This idiom emphasizes the importance of speaking cautiously, as once something is said, it can't be unsaid or taken back, much like the English saying "Think before you speak". The imagery in the idiom refers to the old practice of using a team of four horses to pull a chariot. In the idiom, even these strong, fast horses cannot catch up with spoken words once they have been said.

  9. Hǔ tóu hé biān (虎头蛇尾)

    Literal translation: Tiger's Head, Snake's Tail
    Imagine something that starts off as powerful as a tiger's head and ends as small as a snake's tail. In other words, this idiom is used to describe something that’s anti-climatic, a situation that starts off strong but finishes weakly. So, if you embark on a project with all guns blazing, only to lose interest towards the end, you're said to be "a tiger's head, but a snake's tail." Chinese people sure love using snakes in their idioms!
  1. Chén yú luò yàn (沉鱼落雁)

    Literal translation: Sinking Fish, Falling Goose
    The phrase is a truly poetic and amusing idiom when translated literally. It's often used to describe someone so breathtakingly beautiful aka “drop-dead gorgeous” that they could make fish sink in astonishment and geese fall from the sky. 

These Chinese idioms are just the tip of the iceberg. Each one tells a unique story and captures a snapshot of cultural wisdom, moral principles, and historical references. Even as they make us chuckle with their funny literal translations, they remind us of the richness and depth of the Chinese language. Happy learning!

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