8 Chinese Idioms to Impress Native Speakers

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Every language has its own quirky sayings and expressions, but Mandarin has its own system of traditional idioms. They’re called chengyu and usually consist of four characters, which is why they’re often called four-character idioms. These chengyu aren’t the only idioms in Chinese, and while most come from ancient literature, they’re still common today. Although the idioms are made from just four characters, their meanings can far surpass simple words and sometimes it’s difficult to guess their true meaning.

If you ask us, there’s nothing more impressive than being able to grasp idioms and colloquialisms in another language. Chinese is notoriously difficult, but you’ll be wowing native speakers in no time with these simple phrases:

1. 乱七八糟 – luànqībāzāo

Literally meaning “disorder seven eight messy”, this is the Chinese equivalent of the English phrase “at sixes and sevens”, meaning all muddled up.

2. 一举两得 – yījǔliǎngdé

This one says in four characters what it takes us seven words to say in English. The literal meaning is “one feat two gains”, which I think quite clearly expresses the sentiment of “to kill two birds with one stone”.

3. 一日三秋 – yïrìqiānlĭ

“One day, three autumns” – in other words, this means that one day feels like three years and is used to express that you miss someone.

4. 一派胡言 – yípàihúyán

Sometimes the literal meaning doesn’t make quite so much sense at first glance. This one means “one group recklessly speech”. Difficult to decipher without a little help, it refers to when someone is telling a boatload of lies.

5. 画蛇添足 – huàshétiānzú

These characters translate to “drawing snake, add foot”. It’s a warning against adding something that’s not needed to something else, much like the English expression “to gild the lily”.

6. 九牛一毛 – jiǔniúyīmáo

For this phrase we would say “a drop in the ocean”, i.e. an insignificant amount when taken into context, though the Chinese say “nine cows, one hair”. There are many more drops in the ocean than there are hairs on nine cows, but we suppose you could always multiply the number of cows (or increase the size of the drops).

7. 一言难尽 – yìyánnánjìn

“One word hard end” – um, what? Apparently what this one means is that it’s difficult to explain something with the time you have available to you, perhaps similar to telling someone “it’s a long story”. Useful, but not immediately obvious in meaning.

8. 马马虎虎 – mǎmǎhūhū

So-so or just passable. The literal meaning is more fun though: “horse horse tiger tiger”. Supposedly this comes from a story about a man who made a painting of an animal that was half horse and half tiger and then couldn’t sell it, because it was neither one thing nor the other.

You might be struggling with pronouncing these, or perhaps you’re finding them far too easy. Take our Chinese level test to see if you’re a Chinese champion or your Mandarin still needs a bit of work.

Do you have any chengyu that you like, either for their straightforwardness or their poeticism?