A Beginner's Guide to Chinese Idioms

Chinese idioms, or chengyu (成语 chéngyǔ) are an important part of the Chinese language that every language student who's serious about achieving fluency needs to master. Read on to discover how Chinese idioms are constructed and learn some of the most common Chinese idioms in use today.

a CLI teacher teaching a student about Chinese idioms

Lost in Translation

After studying Chinese for a few months, especially if learning Chinese in China, students often start to become confident in their language abilities. As listening skills improve, most find that basic conversations become less intimidating.

Having finally reached the point where they feel comfortable with the language and can understand simple conversations, students of the Chinese language may even begin picking up some local 方言 (fāngyán, dialect).

Then suddenly and without warning, one day they’ll be confronted by a curious phenomena—the Chinese idiom.

a CLI student using Chinese idioms to communicate with a member of a Chinese ethnic minority group

Chinese people often use Chinese idioms in everyday conversation.

Imagine, for a moment, this common scenario: A student is in the process of complaining to a Chinese colleague about how busy the cafeteria is and how there isn’t a chance they’ll get their lunch in time. Her Chinese colleague nods, exclaiming, “人山人海” (rénshān-rénhǎi).

Character for character, the student thinks, this sentence seems basic: it translates to “people mountain people sea.”

Thinking that maybe her colleague was speaking in slang (俚语, lǐyǔ) or in a local dialect (方言, fāngyán), she asks him to repeat the phrase, but this repetition only confirms both that the student heard her colleague correctly the first time and that she is utterly lost. Smiling awkwardly, she tries to steer the conversation towards more intelligible waters.

In fact, 人山人海 (rénshān-rénhǎi) is a Chinese idiom that simply means "a sea of people."

What are 成语 (chéngyǔ)?

Often called “Chinese idioms” in English, the term 成语 (chéngyǔ) can be directly translated as “already made words” or “formed words.”

a chinese idiom written in calligraphy

Most Chinese idioms are four characters long and contain references to ancient Chinese literature and history.

Woven together over thousands of years out of ancient myths, fairy tales, philosophical musings, poetry and folktales, Chinese idioms are a testament to the longevity and continuity of the Chinese language.

How many Chinese idioms are there?

Depending on which source you consult, there are between 5,000 and 20,000 Chinese idioms. Although most are thousands of years old, they are still very much in use in contemporary Chinese.

There are also modern Chinese idioms that have recently popped up in Chinese online communities and Internet chat rooms.

How and when are Chinese idioms used?

Whether used to angrily emphasize a point during an argument, sincerely encourage someone not to quit, or try to show off mastery of the classics, Chinese idioms are bandied about on a daily basis, and some are quite useful for expressing a variety of different meanings.

a blond CLI student chatting with his Chinese teacher in a grocery store

Chinese idioms are versatile enough to be used in almost any context.

If you don’t learn at least a few idioms, then many of the nuances of a conversation will pass you by. (However, using them incorrectly also comes with its own set of risks.)

The majority of Chinese idioms are composed of four characters. If they refer to a mythical story or historical incident, as many do, they will succinctly paraphrase some of the most important elements of that story or incident, thereby serving as a kind of mnemonic device for students.

a set of red sticks with white Chinese writing on them in a red silk bag next to a teapot

Chinese idioms are a rich repository of historical and cultural knowledge.

Over the course of their education, elementary and high school students in China memorize thousands of idioms as part of their Chinese education.

Chinese Idioms and the Importance of Context

Let’s further consider the original 人山人海 (rénshān-rénhǎi) Chinese idiom that stumped our student in the crowded cafeteria as an example.

Upon returning home after her exasperating cafeteria experience, she will perhaps start digging around on the Internet and in Pleco, her trusty Chinese dictionary app. In Pleco, she will find this definition for that bewildering set of characters:

(idiom) huge crowds of faces; sea of people; a multitude; a vast crowd

Ah-ha! “A mountain of people, an ocean of people.”

Her colleague in the cafeteria was agreeing and commiserating with her. Saying “rénshān-rénhǎi” was just the equivalent of saying, “Yeah, bummer, the cafeteria is super full today.”

In fact, this chéngyǔ frequently comes in handy. Often when discussing social problems, an overpacked metro station or a downturn in the economy, Chinese people will resort to sighing deeply and then muttering this idiom as a way of expressing the idea that, “China really has a lot of people!”

The fact that 人山人海 (rénshān-rénhǎi) is used regularly makes sense considering China’s large population.

chinese idiom for sea of people

人山人海 (rénshān-rénhǎi) is the perfect idiom to use when talking about crowds.

Unfortunately, and to the frustration of many Mandarin learners, not all chéngyǔ are so straightforward.

Because their source material is usually classical Chinese texts or historical records, chéngyǔ often use strange characters or use familiar Chinese characters in strange ways that don’t seem to make grammatical sense, at least from the perspective of modern Chinese grammar.

chinese calligraphy master writes a chinese idiom

Chinese idioms provide a window into the rich history of the Chinese language.

chinese idiom scrolls

Since most Chengyu come from classical Chinese, they can be hard for modern learners to understand.

Even if you completely grasp every character used (“people” “mountain” “people” “sea”), without additional context, some idioms can seem inscrutable.

Chinese Idioms and the Importance of History

The chéngyǔ 破釜沉舟 (pòfǔ-chénzhōu) transliterates to “break the pots and sink the boats” while 以一当十 (yǐyī-dāngshí) literally means “one to ten.”

These idioms are both excellent examples of how essential it is to have a working knowledge of Chinese history in order to understand how to employ a chéngyǔ.

Were these Chinese idioms to be used in isolation among people unfamiliar with their historical roots, they would be nearly impossible to decipher. With some knowledge of their historical background, however, their meanings suddenly reveal themselves.

story of a chinese idiom

Having a basic knowledge of Chinese history can make many Chinese idioms easier to understand.

A Qin dynasty rebellion

In the bitterly cold winter of 207 B.C., the commander Xiang Yu was at the head of a ragged force of 50,000 rebels. Their enemy was the Imperial army of the seemingly invincible Qin Empire under the leadership of Zhang Han.

The emperor sent Zhang Han south to put down the rebellion by any means necessary and placed more than 300,000 imperial soldiers under his command. To the shock and horror of his lieutenants, rebel general Xiang Yu decided that instead of hiding and waiting for the Qin forces to hunt him down and destroy his army, he would attack them.

He readied the army for battle and made for the Yellow River. Upon crossing the river, he again horrified his men by ordering that they sink their own ships, destroy their cooking utensils, and bring only enough provisions for 3 days.

story of a chinese idiom

The stories behind some Chinese idioms can be traced all the way back to the Qin dynasty.

The rebel Xiang Yu’s message was clear: victory or death. In the nine engagements that followed, Xiang Yu’s rebel soldiers are said to “each have taken on ten foes.” After losing more than 100,000 of his men, Zhang Han and his imperial troops turned and fled.

Thus, with Xiang Yu’s victory in mind, the meaning of 破釜沉舟 (pòfǔ-chénzhōu) becomes clear. According to Pleco, it means, “reaching a point of no return; to stake everything on success.”

Equally self-evident is the meaning of 以一当十 (yǐyī-dāngshí), which Pleco translates as: “every one of (them, us) is worth ten ordinary people.”

In this way, learning Chinese history will help you master chéngyǔ.

a Chinese general in a red cloak gestures with a spear

The origin of the Chinese idiom 破釜沉舟 (pòfǔ-chénzhōu) can be traced back to an ancient rebel victory.

Learn Useful Chinese Idioms

There is a witty chéngyǔ for almost every event or circumstance: tests and graduations, laziness and procrastination, evil and how to keep it away, work ethic and success, etc. Although most are four characters in length, some are not. For example, one common favorite is five characters long:

山高皇帝远 (shān gāo, huángdì yuǎn)

“The mountains are high and the emperor is far away."

a Chinese peasant walks on rice terraces

Despite their rarified origins, Chinese idioms are very useful for describing everyday situations.

The closest English equivalent might be, “When the cat’s away, the mice will play,” but this doesn’t capture the depth of mischievousness often involved in this chéngyǔ.

When you’re having a girls night out and everyone begins to gossip about their boyfriends: “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.”

If you’re on an international business trip with a colleague and he brazenly uses the company card to buy drinks: “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.”

When you catch grandpa having a secret smoke behind the house, he smiles at you and says… yes, you guessed it: “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.”

There are truly a huge number of wonderful videos on YouTube on chéngyǔ as well as many other helpful resources available for free online. Such videos will walk you through the literal meaning, pronunciation, and appropriate context for using commonly heard chéngyǔ.

Six Common Chéngyǔ to Learn Today

1. 卧虎藏龙 (wòhǔcánglóng)

Literal translation: crouching tiger, hidden dragon

Meaning: a place or situation that is full of people with unusual talents

Example sentence: 那个小地方真是卧虎藏龙! | Nàgè xiǎo dìfāng zhēn shì wòhǔcánglóng! | That little place really has many talented/extraordinary people!

a group of CLI students and teachers practicing tai chi.

Use the idiom 卧虎藏龙 (wòhǔcánglóng) to describe a place full of talented people.

2. 废寝忘食 (fèiqǐn-wàngshí)

Literal translation: fail to sleep and forget to eat

Meaning: a description of a diligent, hard-working person; to skip meals for the sake of hard work

Example sentence: 他总是为了工作废寝忘食。| Tā zǒngshì wèile gōngzuò fèiqǐn-wàngshí. | For the sake of his job, he’s always working extremely hard.

a man sits in front of a computer late at night

The idiom 废寝忘食 (fèiqǐn-wàngshí) is a great one to use to describe a workaholic.

3. 七嘴八舌 (qīzuǐ-bāshé)

Literal translation: seven mouths, eight tongues

Meaning: a situation or discussion in which everyone is talking

Example sentence: 小声一点! 别七嘴八舌的! | Xiǎoshēng yīdiǎn! Bié qīzuǐ-bāshé de! | Don’t be so loud! Don’t everyone speak at once!

drawing of two unhappy women having a discussion

The idiom 七嘴八舌 (qīzuǐ-bāshé) uses vivid imagery to describe a situation where everyone is talking at once.

4. 画蛇添足 (huàshé-tiānzú)

Literal translation: adding feet when drawing a snake

Meaning: to improve something unnecessarily; to ruin the effect by adding something superfluous

Example sentence: 你们这是把时间浪费在画蛇添足上。 | Nǐmen zhè shì bǎ shíjiān làngfèi zài huàshé-tiānzú shàng. | You’re wasting your time adding unnecessary stuff.

traditional chinese idiom story

Like many Chinese idioms, 画蛇添足 (huàshé-tiānzú) comes from a traditional Chinese folktale.

5. 惊弓之鸟 (jīnggōngzhīniǎo)

Literal translation: a bird startled by the mere twang of a bow-string

Meaning: once bitten, twice shy

Example sentence: 每个人都成了惊弓之鸟。 | Měigèrén dōu chéng le jīnggōngzhīniǎo. | Everyone became frightened out of their wits.

a Chinese aristocrat on horseback pointing up at a bird falling from the sky

The idiom 惊弓之鸟 (jīnggōngzhīniǎo) can be used to describe someone who frightens easily, just like a bird.

6. 千山万水 (qiānshān-wànshuǐ)

Literal translation: a thousand mountains and ten thousand waters

Meaning: a long and tiring journey

Example sentence: 他们跨过千山万水,终于来到了这里。 | Tāmen kuà guò qiānshān-wànshuǐ, zhōngyú lái dào le zhèlǐ. | They’ve gone through a lot to finally arrive here.

learning chinese idioms leads to success

千山万水 (qiānshān-wànshuǐ) is a great idiom to use when talking about a long journey.

Up your Chinese game today!

In addition to the idioms outlined above, Chinese contains a wealth of idioms and sayings about all sorts of topics from learning to the family and beyond. The more idioms and sayings you learn to use, the more natural your spoken and written Chinese will become.

Learning Chinese idioms will also help you pass Chinee proficiency exams like the HSK, which requires knowledge of idioms to pass level 6.

Want to learn even more about Chinese idioms and the Chinese language? Find out how CLI’s Chinese program options can greatly enhance your understanding of Chinese language and culture.

We also invite you to check out more of our articles on key aspects of Mandarin, such as our Introduction to Chinese Measure Words and our piece on the Anatomy of Chinese Characters.

We look forward to welcoming you to Guilin!

22 Common Chinese Idioms

汉字PīnyīnEnglish
绘声绘色huìshēng-huìsèvivid and colorful, true to life
未雨绸缪wèiyǔ-chóumóulit. before it rains, bind around with silk; fig. to prepare for a rainy day
呕心沥血ǒuxīn-lìxuèlit. to spit out one's heart and spill blood; fig. to work one's heart out
想入非非xiǎngrùfēifēito indulge in fantasy
人声鼎沸rénshēng-dǐngfèilit. a boiling cauldron of voices; a noisy and overexcited reaction or response to something
祸不单行huòbùdānxíngmisfortune does not come singly; when it rains it pours
息息相关xīxī-xiāngguānclosely bound up
灯红酒绿dēnghóng-jiǔlǜlit. lanterns red, wine green; fig. feasting and pleasure seeking
一暴十寒yīpù-shíhánlit. have one day's sun and 10 days' cold; fig. sporadic effort; to work for a day then skimp
出神入化chūshén-rùhuàto reach perfection
面面相觑miànmiàn-xiàngqùto look at each other in dismay
小心翼翼xiǎoxīn-yìyìcautious and solemn
敝帚自珍bìzhǒuzìzhēnlit. value the broom as one's own; fig. to attached value to something that is your own
天壤之别tiānrǎngzhībiélit. as different as sky and earth; fig. worlds apart
振聋发聩zhènlóng-fākuìlit. so loud that even the deaf can hear; fig. rousing even the apathetic
津津有味jīnjīn-yǒuwèiwith great interest
琳琅满目línláng-mǎnmùlit. glittering jewels to delight the eyes; fig. a dazzling line-up
聚精会神jùjīng-huìshénto concentrate one's attention
蔚然成风wèirán-chéngfēngto become a general trend
目不斜视mùbùxiéshìlit. not look sideways; fig. to be fully concentrated
如法炮制rúfǎ-páozhìlit. to prepare the herbal medicine by the prescribed method; fig. to follow a set pattern
老马识途lǎomǎ-shítúlit. an old horse knows the way; fig. an experienced worker knows what to do

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