chinese-idioms

Chinese Idioms: 34 Useful Chengyu to Improve Your Mandarin Fluency

Nothing beats the impact of a Chinese idiom delivered with precision.

They say brevity is the soul of wit, after all, and those four-character phrases sure are concise. 

So while it isn’t strictly necessary to learn idioms as you learn Chinese, it is necessary to learn chengyu if you really want to be fluent.

Read on for 34 Chinese idioms to help you sound more native and understand more about the language and culture.

Contents

1. 脚踏实地 (jiǎo tà shí dì)

English: Down to earth

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Literally “to step on solid ground,” this chengyu means that you work hard, focus on the important things and proceed in a steady and stable fashion. It’s a very positive idiom.

现在我们要继续脚踏实地

(xiàn zài wǒ men yào jì xù jiǎo tà shí dì.)

Right now we need to continue staying grounded.

2. 九牛一毛 (jiǔ niú yì máo)

English: A drop in the bucket

This chengyu literally means “nine cows, one strand of cow hair.” It means that something is so small it’s like one strand of cow hair among nine cows.

电子商务的盈利在中国整体商业环境中简直是九牛一毛

(diàn zǐ shāng wù de yíng lì zài zhōng guó zhěng tǐ shāng yè huán jìng zhōng jiǎn zhí shì jiǔ niú yì máo.)

In the entire Chinese commercial environment, the profits from e-commerce are simply just a drop in the bucket.

3. 一无所有 (yì wú suǒ yǒu)

English: To have absolutely nothing; penniless

This idiom describes something or someone that is utterly lacking.

他无家可归,一无所有

(tā wú jiā kě guī, yì wú suǒ yǒu.)

He was homeless, and didn’t have a penny to his name.

4. 一见钟情 (yí jiàn zhōng qíng)

English: Love at first sight

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While it’s generally used for people, this chengyu can also be used for other physical objects.

她就是我的一见钟情

(tā jiù shì wǒ de yí jiàn zhōng qíng.)

She was my love at first sight.

5. 自由自在 (zì yóu zì zài)

English: Free; carefree

You can use this to describe someone’s personality, how someone behaves or how a place makes people feel.

这是一个自由自在的地方。

(zhè shì yī gè zì yóu zì zài de dì fāng.)

This is a free and easy place.

6. 莫名其妙 (mò míng qí miào)

English: Mysterious; baffling

Literally, this chengyu means that it’s hard to articulate the profoundness or mystery of something.

他说了几句莫名其妙的话。

(tā shuō le jī gōu mò míng qí miào de huà.)

He said some mysterious words.

7. 半途而废 (bàn tú ér fèi)

English: Give up halfway

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This describes when you start doing something only to give up in the middle. It means to leave something unfinished.

我不是半途而废的人。

(wǒ bú shì bàn tú ér fèi de rén.)

I’m not someone who gives up halfway.

8. 抛砖引玉 (pāo zhuān yǐn yù)

English: Tossing out an idea

With this, you’re basically saying, “my idea isn’t good, but perhaps it will lead you to make a better contribution.” It’s a bit similar to the English phrase “food for thought.”

Literally, this chengyu means “to cast a brick to attract jade.” It gives others a starting point and is a humble way to contribute to a conversation.

我的建议还不够成熟,算是抛砖引玉吧。

(wǒ de jiàn yì hái bú gòu chéng shú, suàn shì pāo zhuān yǐn yù ba.)

My suggestion is still half-baked—you could see it as just me tossing an idea out there.

9. 豁然开朗 (huò rán kāi lǎng)

English: Suddenly see the light

Originally, this saying referred to the refreshing, liberating feeling you get when you see a beautiful, open area. Through time, this came to refer to sudden enlightenment as well, like the feeling of an “aha!” or “eureka!” moment.

大学时期,乔尼开始有机会用Mac做设计,那是一种豁然开朗的体验。

(dà xué shí qí, qiáo ní kāi shǐ yǒu jī huì yòng Mac zuò shè jì, nà shì yì zhǒng huò rán kāi lǎng de tǐ yàn.)

During college, Jonny began to have opportunities to use a Mac to design, and that was an eye-opening experience.

10. 津津有味 (jīn jīn yǒu wèi)

English: Eagerly; with relish

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This idiom literally refers to the enthusiasm for consuming something delicious, but it can be used for engaging activities besides eating, too.

It’s not something that people typically use to describe themselves, but you can use it for your friends. This chengyu has a positive meaning.

津津有味地读着报纸。

(tā jīn jīn yǒu wèi de dú zhe bào zhǐ.)

He read the newspaper with gusto.

11. 理所当然 (lǐ suǒ dāng rán)

English: Naturally; taken for granted

This one means something that “goes without saying.” Something so obvious that you’d say “duh, of course!” Literally, it means “according to reason, [it] should be the case.”

我不想被视为理所当然

(wǒ bù xiǎng bèi shì wéi lǐ suǒ dāng rán.)

I don’t want to be taken for granted.

12. 全力以赴 (quán lì yǐ fù)

English: All-out effort

The literal translation here is “exert all your strength.” It means “to give all your effort for a goal.” It has a positive connotation. While somewhat formal, it can still be used in everyday speech.

It’s important to note that this chengyu is typically used for actions that haven’t been finished yet (rather than actions that have already been completed).

无论考生的笔试成绩如何,都要全力以赴准备面试。

(wú lùn kǎo shēng de bǐ shì chéng jì rú hé, dōu yào quán lì yǐ fù zhǔn bèi miàn shì.)

No matter how the student’s written test score is, they need to give 100% to prepare for the interview.

13. 乱七八糟 (luàn qī bā zāo)

English: Messy; total confusion or disarray

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This means that something is a total mess. You can use it to describe tangible things (like messy rooms) or more abstract things (like a messed-up life).

是谁弄得乱七八糟的?

(shì shéi nòng de luàn qī bā zāo de?)

Who made this mess?

14. 心血来潮 (xīn xuè lái cháo)

English: Spur of the moment; on a whim

Literally, this idiom evokes the image of blood rushing to your heart (in English we’d say head, of course). It’s the perfect chengyu to use when telling a story.

某日他们心血来潮,决定比拼一下各自的脚法。

(mǒu rì tā men xīn xuè lái cháo, jué dìng bǐ pīn yí xià gè zì de jiǎo fǎ.)

One day, on the spur of the moment, they decided to compare and compete to see whose footwork was best.

15. 不可思议 (bù kě sī yì)

English: Unimaginable; amazing

This chengyu means that something is noteworthy in an unexpected way. It can be used for things which are really unbelievable (e.g. magic or larger phenomena), and for unexpected everyday occurrences.

真是不可思议,我的名字跟你一样!

(zhēn shì bù kě sī yì, wǒ de míng zì gēn nǐ yí yàng!)

It’s incredible, I have the same name as you!

16. 一箭双雕 (yí jiàn shuāng diāo)

English: Kill two birds with one stone

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Just like the English saying, this idiom means you’re using one action to solve two problems.

Note that there are two other versions of this chengyu: 一石二鸟 (yì shí èr niǎo) and 一举两得 (yì jǔ liǎng dé). All are used with the same frequency—the difference is merely preference.

提供更好的客户体验是一箭双雕的解决方案。

(tí gōng gèng hào de kè hù tǐ yàn shì yí jiàn shuāng diāo de jiě jué fāng àn.)

Providing a better customer experience is the solution that kills two birds with one stone.

17. 如鱼得水 (rú yú dé shuǐ)

English: Like a fish in water

Literally “like a fish in water,” this saying carries the same meaning as the English phrase “take to something like a duck to water.” It describes someone who performs well in a certain situation, as if they were meant to be in that environment. This idiom has a positive connotation.

如鱼得水

(tā rú yú dé shuǐ.)

He fits in like a fish in water.

18. 虎头蛇尾 (hǔ tóu shé wěi)

English: Start strong and finish weak

You can use this chengyu to talk about something anticlimactic. It literally says “tiger head” and “snake tail,” and it means that something started off well and ended poorly.

这个赛季的确打得有些虎头蛇尾

(zhè gè sài jì dí què dǎ de yǒu xiē hǔ tóu shé wěi.)

This season (I) indeed played strong at the beginning and finished weak.

19. 对号入座 (duì hào rù zuò)

English: Take a seat

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This chengyu literally means “to take your seat based on your number.” Think of someone assuming that criticism or comment is about them. To tell them they “jumped to conclusions” or “got it wrong,” you could say “take a seat” in English. This chengyu is similar. 

请勿对号入座,我们并没有提到她。

(qǐng wù duì hào rù zuò, wǒ men bìng méi yǒu tí dào tā.)

Please don’t assume we’re talking about her, we didn’t bring her up at all.

20. 有气无力 (yǒu qì wú lì)

English: Weak; feeble

Literally, this idiom means “to have breath but no strength.” It describes someone who is feeling weak and lacking energy.

This chengyu has a somewhat similar meaning to (lèi) — tired. However, the chengyu is more formal, and (unlike 累) it can be used for bigger things like countries and markets.

他经常有气无力,没那么愿意干活了。

(tā jīng cháng yǒu qì wú lì, méi nà me yuàn yì gàn huó le.)

He often lacks energy and isn’t willing to work that hard.

21. 别出心裁 (bié chū xīn cái)

English: To take a unique approach

Use this idiom to talk about an original, ingenious approach to something. It has artistic connotations, emphasizing creativity and originality, and describes someone or something that departs from established practices when facing a problem.

师生别出心裁地用英语唱秦腔,连外国人都能听懂。

(shī shēng bié chū xīn cái di yòng yīng yǔ chàng qín qiāng, lián wài guó rén dōu néng tīng dǒng.)

Teacher and students take an original approach and sing the Shaanxi Opera in English, (and) even foreigners can understand.

22. 冰山一角 (bīng shān yì jiǎo)

English: The tip of the iceberg

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This chengyu can be directly translated as the “tip of the iceberg.” And as in English, it means that only a small part of a larger whole is showing. It indicates that there is much more below the surface to be discovered.

缺钱只是冰山一角

(quē qián zhǐ shì bīng shān yì jiǎo.)

Lack of money is just the tip of the iceberg.

23. 拭目以待 (shì mù yǐ dài)

English: Wait and see

Literally “to rub eyes and wait,” this chengyu means that someone is eagerly awaiting a result, or that something must be given time before one can see the outcome.

至于她会去哪所学校,我们拭目以待

(zhì yú tā huì qù nǎ suǒ xué xiào, wǒ men shì mù yǐ dài.)

As for which school she’ll go to, we’ll wait and see.

24. 倾国倾城 (qīng guó qīng chéng)

English: Drop-dead gorgeous

In English, we might call a very pretty woman “drop-dead gorgeous” or “devastatingly beautiful.” The literal translation of this idiom is “overthrow country, overthrow city.” It describes a woman so beautiful that she can topple countries and cities.

她有着倾国倾城的容貌,让很多男士对她着迷。

(tā yǒu zhe qīng guó qīng chéng de róng mào, ràng hěn duō nán shì duì tā zháo mí.)

She has a drop-dead gorgeous appearance that makes lots of men enchanted by her.

25. 沉鱼落雁 (chén yú luò yàn)

English: Extremely beautiful woman

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In another visualization of the sheer power of feminine beauty, this chengyu describes a woman whose looks make “fish sink and geese fall out of the sky.” In English we might say she is “breath-taking” or “stunning.”

As a historical note, this phrase was first used almost 2,000 years ago by the philosopher and poet 庄子 (zhuāng zi) — Zhuangzi in his work 齐物论 (qí wù lùn) — “Equality of Things.”

谁也不能漂亮一辈子的,就算你曾经是个沉鱼落雁的主儿,那也有老去的那一天。

(shéi yě bù néng piào liang yí bèi zi de, jiù suàn nǐ céng jīng shì gè chén yú luò yàn de zhǔr, nà yě yǒu lǎo qù de nà yì tiān.)

Nobody can be beautiful forever, even if you were once a stunning beauty, there will be a day when (you) get old.

26. 一鸣惊人 (yì míng jīng rén)

English: Overnight celebrity

This saying literally means “one sound/chirp that is surprising.” Figuratively, it refers to an astounding act that causes a lot of attention—like when someone becomes famous overnight.

真了不起!谁会想到他会一鸣惊人

(zhēn liǎo bù qǐ! shuí huì xiǎng dào tā huì yì míng jīng rén?)

Amazing! Who would have thought he’d become famous overnight?

27. 一丝不苟 (yì sī bù gǒu)

English: Meticulous

一丝 means “a strand” and 不苟 means “not careless,” so this phrase is used to describe a person who is fastidious and careful. Such a person never misses a single “strand” in their tasks.

他对每件事都是一丝不苟

(tā duì měi jiàn shì dōu shì yì sī bù gǒu.)

He’s always meticulous in every single thing he does.

28. 自相矛盾 (zì xiāng máo dùn)

English: Contradictory

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This chengyu literally refers to something that is “self-contradicting.” You can use it for someone who’s often saying two opposing things.

这种人不值得相信。他说的每句话总是自相矛盾

(zhè zhǒng rén bù zhí dé xiāng xìn. tā shuō de měi jù huà zǒng shì zì xiāng máo dùn.)

People like him can’t be trusted. He’s always contradicting his every word.

29. 多才多艺 (duō cái duō yì)

English: Gifted; versatile

才 and 艺 both refer to skill or talent. 多 means “plenty,” so this chengyu refers to someone who has many skills or talents.

有机会学就尽量让他去学,以后你儿子就会成为多才多艺的人。

(yǒu jī huì xué jiù jìn liàng ràng tā qù xué, yǐ hòu nǐ ér zi jiù huì chéng wéi duō cái duō yì de rén.)

You should let your son learn whenever there’s an opportunity so that he’ll grow up to become a multi-talented individual.

30. 独一无二 (dú yī wú èr)

English: Unmatched; unique

Literally, this chengyu means there is “only one and no number two.” It refers to something unrivaled, with no equal. 

她又漂亮又能干。简直是世界上独一无二

(tā yòu piào liang yòu néng gàn. jiǎn zhí shì shì jiè shàng dú yī wú èr.)

She’s beautiful and talented. There’s really no one like her in this world.

31. 左右为难 (zuǒ yòu wéi nán)

English: In a dilemma

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左 means “left” and 右 means “right.” If you’re having difficulty going either direction, that means you’re caught up in a situation and can’t find a way out. So you can use this idiom to talk about being in an awkward predicament or a difficult position.

怎么办?我实在想不通。真让我左右为难

(zěn me bàn? wǒ shí zài xiǎng bù tōng. zhēn ràng wǒ zuǒ yòu wéi nán!)

What to do? I can’t make up my mind. I’m really in a dilemma!

32. 塞翁失马 (sài wēng shī mǎ)

English: A blessing in disguise

This phrase is similar to the English saying “every cloud has a silver lining.” It refers to unexpected luck, like finding something good in the midst of a setback or misfortune.

他生病住院时和他的护士恋爱了。真是塞翁失马,焉知非福啊!

(tā shēng bìng zhù yuàn shí hé tā de hù shì liàn ài le. zhēn shì sài wēng shī mǎ, yān zhī fēi fú a!)

He was hospitalized for sickness and fell in love with his nurse. What a blessing in disguise!

33. 二话不说 (èr huà bù shuō)

English: Nothing further to say; no objections

This chengyu is used when someone does something immediately. The request doesn’t need to be repeated because it’s completed without a second thought. It’s something like the English phrases “without further ado” and “without a word.”

二话不说,就把钱借给了我。

(tā èr huà bù shuo, jiù bǎ qián jiè gěi le wǒ.)

Without a second thought, he lent me some money.

34. 破镜重圆 (pò jìng chóng yuán)

English: Reunion

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Here, 破镜 refers to a broken mirror and 重圆 means becoming complete again. It’s sometimes used like the English saying “to pick up the pieces and start again,” especially after a long separation.

This chengyu is based on a myth about two lovers who were separated during a war. Each of them carried half of a mirror. When fate finally allowed them to reunite, the mirror was complete once again.

他们分手了很多年后, 还是破镜重圆了。

(tā men fēn shǒu le hěn duō nián hòu , hái shì pò jìng chóng yuán le.)

After breaking up for many years, they still got back together.

 

For more information on chengyu, the language learning program FluentU lets you see these Chinese expressions in action.

It has authentic Mandarin media clips with interactive subtitles, among other features, so you can learn Chinese idioms and more in context.

And with these 34 useful chengyu, you are one step closer to being fluent in Chinese and expressing your thoughts succinctly!

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