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Chinese idioms


23rd January 2015

Emily Robertshaw

We asked Julia, one of our translators, to select their favourite Chinese idioms. They certainly made us smile!

playing music to a cow

Playing music for a cow

对牛弹琴 (duì niú tán qín)

Meaning: This is a metaphor for trying to reason with those who are unreasonable.
It is also used ironically to refer to those who talk without being aware who their audience is.


plug ears

Plugging one’s ear to steal a bell

 掩耳盗 (yăn ěr dào líng)

Meaning: It can be used as a metaphor, referring to people who deceive themselves
or try to cover up things that can not be concealed.


snake with feet

To draw a snake and add feet to it

 画蛇添足 (huà shé tiān zú)

 Meaning: To ruin something by adding something superfluous.



The fox borrow the tiger’s ferocity

 狐假虎威 (hú jiǎ hǔ wēi)

 Meaning: To use another’s influence to bully or frighten others. 


One’s view is blocked by a leaf

 一叶障目(Yí Yè Zhàng Mù)

 Meaning: This idiom refers to people who have their view of the important shut out
by the trivial and fail to see the wholeness and essence of things.



The fact is that the bell on a tiger’s neck must be untied by the person who tied it

 铃还须系铃人(Jiě líng hái xū xì líng rén)

 Meaning: It means that only the person who starts a problem can end it.



Looking at the sky from the bottom of a well

 坐井观天( Zuò jíng guan tiān )

Meaning: It is a metaphor for having a narrow outlook, lacking in knowledge and experience.


A baby calf is not afraid of a tiger

初生牛犊不怕虎  (Chū shēng niú dú bù pà hǔ)

Meaning: Young people are fearless or the more wit we develop, the less courage


Pulling out seedlings to help growth

拔苗助 (bá miáo zhù zhăng)

Meaning: To damage something by being too impatient or applying too much pressure.

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