Essential Chengyu: Expressing modesty – 笨鸟先飞

We’ve provided tips before on expressing modesty when you get complimented on your Chinese. We’ve got another one for you today: 笨鸟先飞 ( bèn niǎo xiān fēi).

笨鸟先飞 ( bèn niǎo xiān fēi) generally means that people with less ability have to try harder, and literally means that “dumb birds have to start flying early.” Its usually used to refer to yourself in a self-deprecating manner. It’s a vivid and light-hearted chengyu that doesn’t seem like you’re putting yourself down too much either.

A breakdown of the characters in 笨鸟先飞 ( bèn niǎo xiān fēi):

笨 (bèn): dumb or clumsy (if you like this word you may like this post)

鸟 (niǎo): bird

先 (xiān): first or earlier

飞 (fēi): to fly

Observing 笨鸟先飞 in the wild, it has 2 main usages. 

Usage 1) As a verb (often preceded by ‘need/must’ in the form of 要 [yào],得 [děi],必须 [bì xū])

Example 1A)


“tā zhīdào zìjǐ yào bènniǎoxiānfēi, shénme dōuyào nǔlì qù zhēngqǔ…”

“He knows he must make up for his lack of ability with effort, he has to strive to earn everything”

Example 1B)


“…yōuxiù de qiúyuán tài duō le, wǒ bìxū děi bènniǎoxiānfēi

“…there are too many great players, I need to make up for my lack of ability by working the hardest

Usage 2) 笨鸟先飞 + 的 + Noun

Example 2A)


“wǒ yào yòng bènniǎoxiānfēi de jīngshén…”

“I need to use the spirit of making up for lack of ability through effort…”

Example 2B)


“tā zìjǐ jiùshì yī gè bènniǎoxiānfēi de lìzi”

“He himself is an example of someone making up for lack of ability with effort”

Example 2C)


“…háiyǒu bènniǎoxiānfēi de jīhuì”

“…(I) also have the opportunity to make up for my lack of ability with effort

Questions? Comments? Other words you’d like to learn more about? Please let us know!

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2 Responses to Essential Chengyu: Expressing modesty – 笨鸟先飞

  1. Allan Ngo October 12, 2011 at 5:38 pm #

    Cool entry Alan. I usually do use this equivalent in my native tongue and English as well. Now I finally have it in Chinese. Great nugget of knowledge.



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