16 Chinese Idiom Stories – Speak like a Native

16 of the Best Chinese Idioms – Our Favourites and the Stories behind them

Learning Chinese idiom stories and proverbs is a brilliant way to get into higher level Chinese, and the great thing is, they aren’t that hard to learn.

It’s just a case of remembering them!

In this article, we teach you some of our favourites and their stories, how they came about, and when they should be used.

Slip any of these into a sentence with a native speaker, and they’ll be impressed.

Chinese Idiom Stories #1Pearls Before Swine

Chinese Idiom Stories #2Armchair Strategist

Chinese Idiom Stories #3 – Dig a Hole in the Wall

More Idioms to sound like a Native

Be Careful – Final Tips

Chinese Idiom Story 1: 对牛弹琴 Pearls Before Swine

Chinese idiom stories

OK, so the first thing that we do is that we see which characters this chengyu contains and what they mean.

  • 对 duì – towards, at; for; face;
  • 牛 niú – ox, cow;
  • 弹琴 tánqín – to play or strum a lute or other stringed instrument.

So literally, this idiom means “to play an instrument to a cow/ox”, or less literally “to preach to deaf ears”, or “to cast pearls before swine”.

The Story

play the lute to the cow
Playing the lute to the cow

This idiom originates from 牟子理惑论 (Master Mou’s Treatise Dispelling Doubts):

Talk about unappreciative audience.

The story behind this idiom is set during the Warring States period and revolves around a musician Gongming Yi.

He was an exquisite musician loved by many.

One day he was out and about in town and saw some cows.

He thought they might like his music and he started playing the lute (a traditional Chinese instrument).

Needless to say, the cows didn’t bite (well, except for the grass). Gongming Yi first thought that maybe they didn’t like his song so he changed his tune, but the cows didn’t change theirs.

And we got a cute little idiom – 对牛弹琴 – “to play an instrument to a cow”, or “to cast pearls before swine”.

How and when to use this Chinese Idiom?

Example #1:

pearls before swine
“You playing to me”?

别向他解释,那只是对牛弹琴。

Bié xiàng tā jiěshì, nà zhǐshì duìniútánqín.

Don’t explain it to him; it’s only playing the lute to a cow.

Example #2:

跟你说了半天,你一句都不懂,简直是对牛弹琴。

Gēn nǐ shuō le bàn tiān, nǐ yī jù dōu bù dǒng, jiǎn zhí shì duì niú tán qín.

I have been talking to you for a long time, you do not even understand a word. It’s like casting pearls before swine.

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Chinese Idiom Story 2: 纸上谈兵 Armchair Strategist

chinese idiom

First thing’s first, let’s see which characters this chengyu contains:

  • 纸 zhǐ – paper, letter, measure word for document;
  • 上 shàng – on, on top, upper;
  • 谈 tán – to speak, to talk, to converse; and
  • 兵 bīng – soldier, army, weapon.

When we look at the four characters and their separate meanings, we can see that the meaning of the chengyu is clear – a soldier (strategist, general) merely on paper, a person who does not have any practical experience, or “paper warfare”, hence an “armchair strategist”.

Still learning the basics? Don’t forget to check out our basic Chinese grammar blog:

The Story

The story behind this chengyu is connected with 趙括 Zhao Kuo, a general for the State of 趙 Zhao during the Warring States Period of Chinese History.

Zhao, who as a child read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, would often debate military strategy with his father Zhao She over a game of chess.

Zhao She was a famous Chinese bureaucrat and strategist in the third century BC.

Zhao She, a famous Chinese bureaucrat and strategist

The Qin State attacked the Zhao State with around 550,000 soldiers.

Zhao State managed to hold their position for three years due to the military strategy of general Lian Po.

He was playing the waiting game and did not allow himself and his army to be lured by the 秦 Qin State.

The king Xiocheng of Zhao was sick of the status quo, so he found a replacement for Lian Po.

That was general Zhao Kuo. Some historians even believe that the King was influenced by courtiers who were actually bribed by the Qin State to suggest a general without any real experience.

After replacing general Lian Po, Zhao Kuo launched an offensive with a force of about 450,000 men and attacked the Qin State.

In the beginning he was successful, but it was all merely a tactic by the Qin State to lure Zhao deeper into their territory.

Zhao’s army was became vulnerable. The Qin State army soon attacked Zhao’s army from behind, forcing him to surrender.

The result?

Lian Po managed to hold his position for three years; Zhao lost just under half a million men in a month and a half. That really is an armchair strategist.

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How and when to use this Chinese Idiom?

Here are some examples:

要成功就要付诸行动, 只靠 纸上谈兵是不行 的。

Yào chénggōng jiù yào fù zhū xíngdòng, zhǐ kào  zhǐshàngtánbīng shì bù xíngde.

You must act if you want to succeed. It is no use to be an armchair strategist.

别总是纸上谈兵。

Bié zǒng shì zhǐshàngtánbīng.

Don’t always indulge in empty talk.

Chinese Idiom Story 3: 凿壁偷光 Dig a Hole in the Wall

凿壁偷光 Záo bì tōu guāng “to dig a hole (凿)in the wall(壁) to steal(偷) light(光)”.

This Chinese Idiom refers to someone who has the spirit of perseverance in the face of adversity.

The Story

During the 漢 Han Dynasty, there was a student named 匡衡 Kuang Heng.

Learn Chinese Chengyu with LTL
Learn Chinese Chengyu with LTL

His family was so poor that they could not afford a lamp oil nor light many candles, but these financial constraints never stopped the young boy for pursuing his passion for reading and studying.

Being strongly motivated to pass the imperial exams selecting court officials, Kuang Heng endeavored to find a solution:

One night he noticed some light seeping from a crack in the wall which separated his house from the neighbour’s one.

Therefore, he dug a hole in the wall to make use of the neighbour’s light for reading.

Thanks to the light coming through the wall Kuang Heng studied Confucian texts for years and prepared for the exams.

Year by year, he passed each level, impressed the officials, and achieved his dream of becoming an imperial officer.

Over the years, he held many prestigious titles till he finally became Chancellor.

How and when to use this Chinese Idiom?

现在人们一般用凿壁偷光来形容勤学苦读。

Xiànzài rénmen yībān yòng záo bì tōu guāng lái xíngróng qínxué kǔ dú.

Nowadays people use this chengyu to describe someone who studies or works very hard.

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按部就班 – Àn bù jiù bān

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Getting a Visa in China could be described as 按部就班

MEANING – to follow a definitive method, or a prescribed procedure.

This idiom is sometimes used in a critical manner to describe inflexible bureaucracy.

Anyone who has had to apply for a visa in China will be able to relate to this, traipsing from government office to government office to get those all-important red stamps.

We always get there in the end but my word we had to fight for it!

唇亡齿寒 – Chún wáng chǐ hán

MEANING – (literal) if the lips are gone, the teeth will feel cold.

Still confused? Well, it’s all about mutual dependency.

The popularity of this idiom can help us to understand China’s view of its place in the world. Every country is intertwined and dependent on others.

China holds a large amount of America’s debt, but China is dependent on exporting to America.

African countries need Chinese investment, but China needs African resources, and so on. In this global world, nobody is an island.

当机立断 – Dāng jī lì duàn

MEANING – to make a decision when an opportunity presents itself.

Since the opening up of the Chinese economy, the Chinese have been nothing if not opportunistic – whether opening factories, founding companies, or seeking out new investment opportunities.

Take, for example, the carousel of small shops and restaurants on most Chinese streets – no sooner has one closed down, another opens in its place.

Who remembers the plastic-sprouts-on-head craze that swept across China in 2015?

Within days, it seemed that every street hawker in every city was selling the strange little things. But as with the sad demise of that fashion craze, not every opportunity pans out as hoped – you must constantly be on the search for the next one.

Related to the idiom above we also have 捷足先登 – Jié zú xiān dēng – literally, the swift footed will be the first to reach the top.

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根深蒂固 – Gēn shēn dì gù

MEANING – (literal) deep-rooted and as firmly attached as fruit is to the stalk.

This refers to a deeply ingrained belief or habit. It is important to understand that despite China’s breakneck development, it is still a society which cherishes certain traditional values.

There are still many firmly held beliefs which foreigners do not always understand.

One example is the concept of “filial piety”, the respect and obedience one has for his or her parents.

You can even see adults well into their 30’s and 40’s defer to their parents. There are several related idioms relating to filial piety, like for example 乌鸟私情 wū niǎo sī qíng – lit. the solicitude of the crow, the meaning is “to provide for your old parents”.

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饮水思源 – Yǐn shuǐ sī yuán

MEANING – (literal) consider the source of the water you are drinking.

This means you should always bear in mind how the past has shaped your current situation.

It is important to look to China’s history, and especially its more recent history, to understand how China has become what it is today.

Anyone who has been to China will have noticed that Chinese people love to eat – food is definitely the main source of entertainment and conversation here – and many say that harks back to times when food was more scarce.

孤掌难鸣 – Gū zhǎng nán míng

Italian students group photo in the LTL Beijing lobby
A team is best – 孤掌难鸣

MEANING – it is impossible to clap with one hand.

It is difficult to achieve anything single-handedly.

This idiom illustrates the Chinese mentality that the group is more important than the individual.

Fight something together, and good results will follow!

蒸蒸日上 – Zhēng zhēng rì shàng

MEANING – (literal) Water evaporates into steam.

This idiom is often used to describe steady growth and rapid progress, often used when talking about the economy or careers.

China has seen an amazing growth since the late 1970’s and until today.

Related to the above idiom we also have 日新月异 – rì xīn yuè yì – lit. changes every day and every month. This idiom often crops up when talking about technological advances.

络绎不绝 – Luò yì bù jué / 川流不息 – Chuān liú bù xī

China gets busy!!
China gets busy!!

MEANING – (literal) as long as unreeled silk / to flow continuously

Both of these idioms describe a continuous or massive flow of people or traffic.

In recent years the population of many Chinese cities has grown exponentially, and the sheer number of people on the sidewalk and cars on the street is an amazing sight.

If you dare to travel cross country during Chinese New Year, you will truly understand the meaning of these two idioms.

一针见血 – Yī zhēn jiàn xiě

MEANING – (literal) to see blood with one needle prick.

This idiom is used to describe people who are blunt and straight to the point.

A related idiom is 单刀直入 – dān dāo zhí rù – lit. thrust a big knife straight in there.

Both rather unpleasant sounding idioms by all means. The fact getting straight to the point is associated with blood, violence and knives is quite telling as to how people communicate in China.

Instead of being direct, one should always seek to maintain stability and harmony during interactions, and get your message across in subtle ways, especially if that message is a controversial one.

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九牛一毛 – jiǔ niú yī máo

MEANING – (literal) 9 cows and 1 strand of hair.

This Chengyu can be likened to the popular western equivalent, a drop in the bucket. 

Both sayings hold virtually identical meanings, but rather than using a bucket, the Chinese use a Cow to make their point!

You could use a hotly contested job as an example.

Hundreds of people apply but Mr Average Joe was just one strand of Cow Hair in amongst 9 cows. His chances of landing that job are slim, or even non existent.

见多识广 – jiàn duō shí guǎng

MEANING – (literal) see many know broad.

Although this makes no direct sense, we can piece the puzzle together and see this Chengyu refers to someone who has seen it all and has broad knowledge.

In many cases the older generation, and how they should be listened to as they’ve most likely been through what you are, all before.

万众瞩目 – wàn zhòng zhǔ mù

MEANING – 10,000 eyes upon you.

Ever had the eyes of 10,000 expectant folk upon yourself?

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Well, unless you are a famed name probably not but on the flip side we’ve all been one of those 10,000 as we gaze lovingly at our favourite celebrities, sports stars and actors/actresses.

This Chengyu is all about capturing the attention of many and the direct translation very much paints this picture which is “ten thousand crowd gaze eyes”.

If he or she woos the crowd with their mesmeric dance moves, powerful singing voice or first rate sports skills… they will be capturing the eyes of many, or wàn zhòng zhǔ mù.

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Be Careful with Chinese Idioms and Chengyu

Why?

Because one character can make all the difference!

Let’s explain more…

If you’ve studied Chinese as a foreigner you’ll know the fine lines between right and wrong.

Whether it’s spoken or written, one wrong tone or missed stroke can change the whole meaning of what you hope to say.

Although this can lead to embarrassing moments it’s all part of the fun in learning Chinese.

On the topic of near misses we explore below how the context of a Chengyu or Idiom can change greatly by just changing a single character.

This will give you an idea how different things can be in Chinese by changing the most minor of details.

It may appear daunting but it isn’t, just remember the English language can be equally harsh, as we’ll show here:

  • To, Two, Too
  • There, Their, They’re
  • Through, Throw, Thorough

The above, and so many more provide daily challenges for non native speakers.

Chinese also have the added issue of having the same word for him and her, which is why many struggle to differentiate between the two when speaking English.

Anyway let’s move onto a Chinese Chengyu and change a single character after to demonstrate what we mean.

一日千秋 (Yī rì qiān qiū) – “1 day, 1,000 autumns.”

Meaning: sudden or rapid changes; in a day, 1,000 autumns or years passed

一日千里 (Yī rì qiān lǐ) – “1 day, 1,000 miles.”

Meaning: rapid progression; travelled 1,000 miles in 1 day

一日三秋 (Yī rì sān qiū) – “1 day, 3 autumns.”

Meaning: to miss someone; a day feels like 3 autumns or 3 years

One character can make all the difference to the meaning of each Chengyu, but in general day to day chat as well so be careful when speaking and make sure to get the tones as clear as possible.

Want to discover another idiom through the magic of video? Step forward LTL veteran Alex and his friend Hui who demonstrate this in rather impressive style!


Chinese Idiom Stories – FAQ’s

Should I learn Chinese Idioms?

Learning Chinese idiom stories and proverbs is a brilliant way to get into higher level Chinese, and the great thing is, they aren’t that hard to learn and are more about memorizing them.

What does 对牛弹琴 mean?

Literally – Play the lute to a cow. It is used with reference to someone who is offering a treat to an unappreciative audience.

What does 凿壁偷光 mean?

Literally – to dig a hole in the wall to steal light. This Chinese Idiom refers to someone who has the spirit of perseverance in the face of adversity.

What does 纸上谈兵 mean?

When we look at the four characters and their separate meanings, we can see that the meaning of the chengyu is clear – a soldier (strategist, general) merely on paper, a person who does not have any practical experience, or “paper warfare”, hence an “armchair strategist”.

What does 万众瞩目 mean?

万众瞩目 – wàn zhòng zhǔ mù.

This Chengyu is all about capturing the attention of many and the direct translation very much paints this picture which is “ten thousand crowd gaze eyes”.

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    Irene Magnosi , Student Advisor

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