Four-character Chinese idioms

Like the English language, Chinese is replete with idioms and “canned” phrases that convey figurative meanings or help express a feeling or describe a situation more effectively. You will find that many such traditional Chinese phrases consist of four characters, and that the pinyin notations for the individual characters are connected into one single string. We have already come across a few that involve animals. Today, we will look at a few more that refer to animals metaphorically.

雞犬不寧 (jīquǎnbùníng) describes a state of turmoil that makes even fowls and dogs feel ill at ease.

他們時常吵架, 鬧得雞犬不寧.
Tāmen shícháng chǎojià, nào de jīquǎnbùníng.
They quarrelled often, causing great commotion.

對牛彈琴 (duìniútánqín) is to play the lute to an ox, or talking to the wrong audience.

同他談科學, 像是對牛彈琴.
Tóng tā tán kēxué, xiàng shì duìniútánqín.
Talking about science to him is like playing the lute to an ox.

鹿死誰手 (lùsǐshuíshǒu at whose hand will the deer die) refers to a hunting contest, the winner being the one who kills the deer.

鹿死誰手, 現在還說不定.
Lùsǐshuíshǒu, xiànzài hái shuōbudìng.
It’s still too early to tell who will win the contest.

走馬看花 (zǒumǎkànhuā) means to ride on horseback and look at the flowers in passing, i.e. not gaining a deeper understanding or appreciation of (usually) a place.

我們在紐約市只是走馬看花.
Wǒmén zài Niǔyuē Shì zhǐshì zǒumǎkànhuā.
We only had a cursory tour in New York City.

馬不停蹄 (mǎbùtíngtí) likens the manner of working at some task to the non-stop galloping of a horse.

他連夜趕工, 馬不停蹄.
Tā liányè gǎn gōng, mǎbùtíngtí.
He rushed the work through the night, like a horse running non-stop.

馬到成功 (mǎdàochénggōng) is to win instant victory, as upon the arrival of the horse. You might offer the following toast to a friend embarking on a new venture:

祝你馬到成功!
Zhùnǐ mǎdàochénggōng!
Here’s wishing you instant success!

A task taken on enthusiastically but trails off poorly is like a tiger with a snake’s tail, or 虎頭蛇尾 (hǔtóushéwěi).

做事不可以虎頭蛇尾.
Zuòshì bù kěyǐ hǔtóushéwěi.
When doing something, you should not go in like a lion and come out like a lamb.

如鱼得水 (rúyúdéshuǐ) is to be in one’s element, like fish in water.

我在這兒如鱼得水
Wǒ zài zhèr rúyúdéshuǐ.
I’m in my elements here.

生龍活虎 (shēnglónghuóhǔ) are live dragons and real tigers. This phrase is used for describing someone (like a basketball player) who is full of vim and vigour.

這些籃球隊員個個生龍活虎.
Zhèxiē lánqiú duìyuán gègè shēnglónghuóhǔ.
These basketball players – each and every one is like a spirited dragon or tiger.

打草驚蛇 (dǎcǎojīngshé) is to beat the grass and scare away the snake.

千萬不要打草驚蛇.
Qiānwàn bùyào dǎcǎojīngshé.
Make sure you don’t act rashly and arouse suspicion.

Search the Internet for other four-character Chinese idioms and try to incorporate them into your own sentences.

Advertisements

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Anthony Bogadek
    Jul 25, 2012 @ 08:40:57

    Hi, dear Ms Lin,
    Great lesson as always.
    Two little points to ask about:
    1. Re. 同向他談科學, 像是對牛彈琴.
    Tóng tā tán kēxué, xiàng shì duìniútánqín.
    The Chinese text and pinyin text do not match perfectly: the pinyin for 向 is missing; or should the character 向 be left out?

    2. Re: 這些籃球隊員個個生龍活虎.
    Zhèxiē lánqiú duìyuán gègè shēnglónghuóhǔ.
    These basketball palyers – each and every one is like a spirited dragon or tiger.
    English spelling: I guess it should be “players”
    With kind regards and thanks,
    A. Bogadek

    Reply

    • likeabridge
      Jul 25, 2012 @ 12:34:36

      Hi Anthony,

      Thanks for the corrections. In the first sentence, you would use either 同 or 向, but not both.

      Yes, “players” was misspelled. I remember having typed a pizza dough recipe that calls for 1 teaspoonful of “slat” (in my version). While making the dough, I spotted the typo, but made the worse mistake of using 1 tablespoonful of salt instead. 🙂

      Reply

  2. Anthony Bogadek
    Jul 26, 2012 @ 11:38:57

    Dear Ms. Lin,
    Many thanks for your reply to my email (Jul 25, 2012).

    I’ve got two more points about the latest lesson (Four-character Chinese idioms):
    1. spelling and tone mark in:
    鹿死誰手, 現在還說不定.
    Lùsǐshuíshǒu, xiànzà hái shuōbudíng.
    I guess it should be “xiànzài” and fourth tone on “dìng”.

    2. In “馬不停蹄 (mǎbùtíngtí) likens the manner of working at some task to the nonstop galloping of a horse,” the word “nonstop” is not hyphenated, but in the next sentence “He rushed the work through the night, like a horse running non-stop.” it is hyphenated. I think “non-stop” is the only correct spelling. (see English Oxford Dictionary)

    This was a very useful lesson because it showed how to use idioms in actual context.

    A. Bogadek

    Reply

    • likeabridge
      Jul 26, 2012 @ 13:00:56

      Hi Anthony,

      You’re right on all three counts. Thanks again for pointing out my typos and the glitches in the Chinese wordprocessor I’m using. I’ve made the corrections in the article.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: