Many new learners find that there are plenty of funny expressions or idioms in the Chinese language, which they sometimes have difficulties in understanding what they mean. Today we will be introducing some interesting expressions in daily use, and some idioms related to animals that have stories behind them.
丢人 diū rén
This word seems to mean “losing (丢) a person (人)”, which actually means “losing face; be ashamed of”. A similar expression would be 丢面子 (losing face).
Ex: 你是嫌我丢人吗？ Are you ashamed of me?
吃醋 chī cù
Translated directly, this means to “eat (吃) vinegar (醋)”. As well all know how sour vinegar could be, having too much vinegar could be expressing 心里酸 (sour in one’s heart) = getting green-eyed; become jealous of. When people say 吃飞 (flying) 醋, it means to become jealous of someone unnecessary, which is often used in relationships.
Ex: 你别吃飞醋了好吗？ Will you stop being jealous of someone unnecessary? (I have nothing to do with him/her)
背黑锅 bēi hēi guō
In the Chinese context, when being falsely blamed for something or is suffering from wrongful treatment, you won’t be “a fall guy” or “a scapegoat”; instead you would “carry a black wok on your back.” 背 (carry on one’s back) indicates that the 锅 (wok) is big and heavy, while 黑 (black) represent illegal or crime.
Ex: 他一出错就让我背黑锅。 He makes me take the blame every time he does something wrong.
落汤鸡 luò tāng jī
When a chicken (鸡) falls into (落入) the soup (汤), it would get completely wet. Consequently, this term means that someone is soaking wet. Another explanation could be a chicken (鸡) dripping (落下) water, indicating a person is so wet that he is leaving a puddle.
Ex: 大雨把大家浇成了落汤鸡。 The heavy rain drenched everyone.
吹牛皮 chuī niú pí
This means “blow (吹) cow leather (牛皮)” in Chinese, which originated from the upper reaches of the Yellow River (黄河), where people would use a cow skin raft for transportation. But now this expression means to “brag”, or to “boast without shame”. Its shortcut version 吹牛 is often commonly used as well. A similar expression would be 拍马屁 (slap the butt of a horse), meaning to flatter someone, or “lick somebody’s shoes”.
Ex: 他既调皮，又爱吹牛皮。 He is naughty, and loves to boast as well.
Idioms with Animals
Chinese people tend to “use” animals in many ways, for instance, they have the 十二生肖 (Twelve Chinese Zodiac Signs) to represent years. Animals are also used to represent certain characteristics, which could be seen in the following idioms (成语). Idioms are finalized terms or expressions mostly composed of four characters.
一石二鸟 yī shí èr niǎo
“One stone two birds” is a quite straightforward way of expressing “to kill two birds with one stone”. A similar expression would be 一箭双雕 (one arrow two eagles). Both means using one action to achieve two goals, commonly used to express that something is delicately or perhaps maliciously planned.
Ex: 他不但做成了一笔生意，还结交了一位新朋友，真是一石二鸟。 He not only settled a business deal but also made a new friend, now that’s two birds with one stone.
沉鱼落雁 chén yú luò yàn
This means that someone is “beautiful enough to make fish (鱼) drown (沉) in the water, and make geese (雁) fall (落) from the sky”. Another idiom often used combined with this is 闭月羞花, “beautiful enough to make the moon (月) shade (闭), and make flowers (花) too shy (羞) to bloom”. Both are based on traditional stories of ancient beauties, used for expressing “drop-dead gorgeous”.
Ex: 西施之美，简直是沉鱼落雁，闭月羞花。 The beauty of Xi Shi could only be described as “drop-dead gorgeous”.
狐假虎威 hú jiǎ hǔ wēi
“fake fox, mighty tiger”; this idiom date back to a fable in the Warring States Period (战国时期). A fox says to the tiger: “I am the most powerful animal in the forest, if you follow after me you would be able to see how everyone is intimidated by me.” Of course, what really frightened all animals was the tiger behind. Thus, this idiom is used to express “to bully or intimidate people by depending or relying on the power of others”.
A more positive idiom related to tigers is 卧虎藏龙 (crouching tiger, hidden dragon), which indicates hidden or undiscovered talents.
Ex: 他以为自己的岳父是总经理，就可以狐假虎威欺负人吗？ He thinks that he could bully people just because his father-in-law is the general manager?
画龙点睛 huà lóng diǎn jīng
“painting a dragon and dots its eyes as the finishing touch”. This idiom means to “add the crowning touch to an article or speech, using a few words to bring out its essence, making the content more vivid and powerful”. It is based on a magical story that supposedly happened in the Tang Dynasty (唐朝). A famous artist painted four dragons on the wall of a temple, but neither had any eyes. When he was asked why he answered: “if I do the dragons will fly away”. But people didn’t believe that and urged him to complete the painting. After adding the crowning touch, the two dragons with eyes rose to the sky.
Another idiom related to painting and animals is 画蛇添足 “painting a snake and adding it with feet”, which is the Chinese version of “gild the lily”. An idiom used to express doing something completely unnecessary—not only that it is useless, but it might also be inappropriate. Snakes do not have feet, otherwise, we would call them lizards. It is also a metaphor for making up facts out of thin air.
Ex: 这句话真是起了画龙点睛的作用。 This sentence really serves as the finishing touch
塞翁失马 sài wēng shī mǎ
This is based on a story from a book written in the Western Han Dynasty (西汉). An old man living near the country borders had a talent of fortune-telling. When one of his horses ran off to the other side he said, “why can’t it be a blessing?” A few months later, when his horse returned with many fine horses, he said, “why can’t it be a catastrophe?” When his son fell off a horse and broke his leg, he said, “why can’t it be a good thing?”. A year later, when the war broke, all the men in the village were forced to join the army and most of them died. But the old man’s son was saved because of his lame leg.
This metaphor of “an old man (翁) living in the borders (塞) losing (失) a horse(马)” means that although we suffer losses, we might gain benefits later on. It also means that a bad thing can be turned into a good thing under certain conditions.
塞翁失马 is also commonly followed by 焉知非福 (how would one tell whether it’s a misfortune or a blessing), meaning “loss is not always a bad thing, but a blessing in disguise.” And that’s exactly the kind of attitude which we need to have in real life.
Ex: 塞翁失马，焉知非福；或当上帝关上一扇门时, 就总会打开一扇窗。
A lost may turn out to be a blessing in disguise; or when God closes a door, he always opens a window.
Do you know any Chinese idioms that you would like to share? Let us know about it in the comments!