Last Updated on 2023-01-23 , 3:17 pm
In the spirit of CNY, and the spirit of doing what the government told you to (remember the speak mandarin campaigns like 华语酷? What do you mean that was 10 years ago!?), here are 15 Chinese idioms, also known as 成语, and how to use them in your daily life. 华语 is 酷, don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.
This one means “people mountain people sea”. Very obvious. How many people do you need to make a mountain and a sea? That’s right, a lot. Which is exactly how you use this.
Used in a sentence: 春节期间牛车水人山人海。
English Translation: During CNY, Chinatown people mountain people sea.
Drink water think of the source. See, Chinese idioms aren’t that difficult at all. You just translate them simply and the meaning is obvious. This one means to have gratitude and think of where your happiness comes from.
Used in a sentence: 做人要饮水思源，感恩图报。
English Translation: One must drink water and think of the source, and have gratitude.
Oh. Oh dear. Ear… what now? I take what I said earlier back. Translating Chinese idioms is not easy at all. This actually means hear and see a lot, get influenced easily, which is why there are an ear and an eye in the idiom.
Used in a sentence: 从小在父母的耳濡目染下，我决定当一名医生。
English Translation: From the influence of my parents when I was young, I decided to become a doctor.
This must be very familiar to many of you, amirite?
Ok, now we’re getting back to the easier ones. House know… house know. Hm. I guess this doesn’t really have the same ring to it. This means every house and family knows, referring to something being very well known.
Used in a sentence: 牛顿与苹果的故事已经家喻户晓。
English Translation: The story of Newton and the apple is well known.
Oh my God, what is that word? I can already see you recoiling in fear. Don’t worry, this one is actually very simple. It just means ‘mirage’. Yeah, that’s it. Apparently the Chinese see mirages more on the oceans than the deserts, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Used in a sentence: 在沙漠中行走经常会看到海市蜃楼。
English Translation: You’ll often see mirages while walking in the desert.
Come on! The example is literally about a desert, what the heck, Chinese?
Eyebrows open eyes smile. I bet you didn’t know your facial features could do those things. That is apparently how the Chinese smile: with their goddamn eyebrows. You say you smile with your eyes, I give it to you, but your eyebrows?
Used in a sentence: 当奶奶听说你有女朋友，她高兴得眉开眼笑。
English Translation: When your grandma heard you had a girlfriend, she eyebrows open eyes smile.
Yeah, that’s right. When are you going to get a girlfriend? Don’t think you can escape that question once CNY is over.
Ok, this one is a little scarier. There are two of them scary Chinese words now (Why do you even need two?). Thank God this one is really easy, and I’m quite sure many of you already know this. This one means ‘famous’, and literally means your name is as huge and heavy as a giant ancient Chinese pot.
Used in a sentence: 他已经是大名鼎鼎的人物了。
English Translation: He is as huge and heavy as a giant ancient Chinese pot.
Ah. Good thing we were prepared for this from the previous one. That’s another one of those ancient Chinese pots. Unfortunately, there’s nine of them now.
This one says one sentence nine pots, which means your words and promises are very important and not to be broken.
Used in a sentence: 你要想受人尊重，就必须一言九鼎。
English Translation: If you want people to respect you, you must one sentence nine pots.
What is it with the Chinese and their giant pots?
Close door build car. To be honest though, why would you build a car with your door open? That just invites thieves to come along and steal your car. This one actually means to do things blindly, outside of reality.
Used in a sentence: 他闭门造车，打造了一辆不能走的车。
English Translation: He built a car behind closed doors, building a car that could not move.
Ok, these complicated Chinese words need to stop. High and far what now? Actually, though, this means you’ll see further when you’re high up, or to be farsighted. Those two words both mean see. Seriously, Chinese, couldn’t you use simpler words for the same meaning?
Used in a sentence: 由于他高瞻远瞩，才造就了一番大事业。
English Translation: Because of his farsightedness, he managed to build a great career.
Now we’re back at the simpler words. Light bright, right, big. This looks like a mish-mash of generic good descriptions. Which is actually not very far from the actual meaning. This means ‘just and honourable’.
Used in a sentence: 他做生意一向光明正大，从来不骗人。
English Translation: He always does business in a Light bright, right, big manner, and never lies.
Play piano at the cow. Another rather simple idiom, but quite ridiculous if you think about it. Who in the right mind would play piano for cows? How did this idiom even come about? Was there seriously a guy who played piano for some cows?
The answer is yes. Yes, someone played piano for some cows.
This idiom means it is useless to explain something to someone who doesn’t understand.
Used in a sentence: 给不懂英语的人朗诵莎士比亚，实在是对牛弹琴。
English Translation: To read Shakespeare to people who don’t understand English is to play piano at the cow.
Please don’t tell me I’m doing exactly this right now.
Fish for a needle on the bottom of the ocean. No, this does not say 海底捞. I mean it does, but it has nothing to do with the steamboat. Stop thinking about food.
This means very difficult to find something, basically the Chinese version of searching for a needle in a haystack. The Chinese prefer throwing them in oceans instead of barns.
Used in sentence: 若不知道他的地址，要想在新加坡找到他真是如同海底捞针。
English Translation: If you don’t know his address, looking for him in Singapore is like fishing for a needle on the bottom of the ocean.
No cure. This one may be very familiar with some of you, when your Chinese teacher used this on you when you refused to do your Chinese homework. Don’t worry, you’re reading this article; your Chinese confirm got cure.
Used in a sentence: 他不肯听道理，真是不可救药了。
English Translation: He refuses to listen to reason, no cure now.
But it’s not too late for you!
No work, get free stuff. They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but guess what, there is in Chinese (this idiom, not actual food. Stop thinking about food!). The implied meaning here is actually to profit from others’ efforts, so really, nothing’s free. How sad.
Used in a sentence: 天下没有不劳而获的东西。
English Translation: There is no such thing as no work, get free stuff.
Except this article! We just taught you how to use 15 Chinese idioms, for free. Now you should probably buy us lunch or something.
You now know 15 Chinese idioms! Congratulations! Now go out there and wow your friends and family with your dedication to Chinese culture. That’ll show you, Chinese teacher! Who’s ‘useless’ now? Who’s ‘no cure’ now?
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