Chinese idioms that are easy to figure out (2)

Last week we talked about 一石二鸟 (yī shí èr niǎo) being the equivalent of “killing two birds with one stone”. In fact, it is the modern equivalent of the familiar western idiom. The original Chinese idiom is 一箭双雕 (yījiànshuāngdiāo), which means shooting two hawks with one arrow. As you continue to learn Chinese, you will come across a mix of modern and classical Chinese idioms. Of these, the classical idioms tend to be more literary and refined. The modern ones are easier to understand but some of them can be quite coarse. For example, there is 五十步笑百步 (wǔshíbùxiàobǎibù), which refers to a soldier who retreats fifty steps mocking another one who retreats a hundred steps, i.e. the pot calling the kettle black. In the commoner’s language, this becomes 鼻屎笑眼屎 (bí shǐ xiào yǎnshǐ), i.e. the booger in the nose laughing at the gunk in the eyes.

Today we will look at two groups of common set phrases that follow an easily recognized pattern. The expressions with the pinyin for the characters all strung together are accredited idioms. The conjunctives employed in these idioms can just as well be used to form other similar expressions, as we shall see below.

又白又嫩 (yòubáiyòunèn) means white and tender. 又细又白 (yòuxìyòubái) means delicate and white. These expressions usually refer to the complexion of a pretty young lady.

又大又圆(yòudàyòuyuán) means big and round, like the moon in mid-autumn.

又快又好 (yòukuàiyòuhǎo) refers to how a job was done well and speedily.

又臭又长 (yòuchòu yòucháng) means loathsome (stinks) and long, like a boring lecture.

又冷又饿 (yòulěngyòuè) describes the miserable state of being cold and hungry.

So, you can see that 又 … 又 … means “both … and …” Therefore, you could easily follow this pattern and insert two related attributes to form a new expression. For example,

Tā de bǎobǎo yòu féi yòu dà.
Her baby is chubby and large.

Tā de dìdi yòu shòu yòu xiǎo.
Her brother is skinny and small.

This conjunctive can also be used to join two actions.

又哭又笑 (yòukūyòuxiào) means to cry and laugh at the same time.

又打又骂 (yòudǎyòumà) means to hit and also chide (someone).

又哭又闹 (yòukūyòunào) is to cry and make a scene.

Háizǐ men yòu pǎo yòu tiào.
The children were running and bouncing about.

Tā duì Wēilián yòu ài yòu hèn.
She loves and loathes William at the same time.

The following expressions contain the conjunctive “neither … nor …”.

不慌不忙 (bùhuāngbùmáng) describes how one is neither flustered nor in a hurry.

不卑不亢 (bùbēibùkàng) describes how one conducts oneself properly, being neither too modest nor too haughty.

不中不西 (bùzhōngbùxī) means neither Chinese nor western. This expression is often used in a deprecating remark.

不大不小 (bùdàbùxiǎo) means not too large and not too small, i.e. just the right size. Similarly, you could form such expressions as 不多不少 (bù duō bù shǎo not too many and not too few), 不高不矮 (bù gāo bù ǎi not too tall and not too short) and 不胖不瘦 (bù pàng bù shòu not too plump and not too skinny).

In the following examples, the conjunctive is used to join two verbs.

不知不觉 (bùzhībùjué) means neither knowing nor feeling. It is often used as an adverbial expression that means unconsciously or unwittingly.

不眠不休 (bù mián bù xiū) describes how one works tirelessly, not sleeping nor taking a rest.

理睬 (lǐcǎi) means to pay attention or to show interest in someone.

Tā duì wǒ bù lǐ bù cǎi.
He takes no notice of me.

Chinese idioms that are easy to figure out (1)

Have you ever been pleasantly surprised by being able to figure out on your own the meaning of a Chinese idiom just by looking up the words it contains? There are many Chinese idioms that have obvious meanings.

Chapters 27 and 28 of “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes” present a number of familiar Chinese expressions and idoms, one of which is 一石二鸟 (yī shí èr niǎo). “One stone, two birds.” Isn’t this the equivalent of “killing two birds with one stone”? Following are a few more examples of Chinese idioms that are straightforward to figure out.

三心二意 (sānxīnèryì) is to be of two minds or to be half-hearted. When trying to convince someone to accept an appointment or a marriage proposal, you could say:

Bùyào zài sānxīnèryì le.
Make up your mind and go for it.

We learned in the last lesson that (máng) means to be busy. The word (luàn) means to be chaotic or random. Therefore 手忙脚乱 (shǒumángjiǎoluàn) means to be in a frantic rush or to scrabble in a mess of ineffective actions (involving the hands and the feet).

客人提早来到, 弄得我们手忙脚乱.
Kèrén tízǎo láidào, nòng de wǒmén shǒumángjiǎoluàn.
The guests arrived early, sending us into a frantic rush (to get ready).

(qīng) is to incline, overturn or pour out. (pén) is a tub or a pot. Therefore, 倾盆大雨 (qīngpéndàyǔ) means a heavy downpour.

Wàimian xià zhe qīngpéndàyǔ.
It’s pouring (or raining cats and dogs) out there.

A similar expression is 瓢泼大雨 (piáopōdàyǔ) which likens the torrential rain with water and splashed from a large ladle made from dried gourd.

心有余而力不足. (Xīnyǒuyúérlìbùzú.) means the spirit is more than willing, but the flesh is weak. It describes the the inability to accomplish what one desires to do, such as trying to help a friend get out of debt.

船到桥头自然直. (Chuán dào qiáotóu zìran zhí.) translates to “The boat will automatically straighten itself out when it gets to the bridge.” This is equivalent to the English saying, “We’ll cross the bridge when we get there.”

进退两难 (jìntuìliǎngnán) means being caught in a dilemma, such that it would be just as precarious to proceed as to back off.

Zhèi jiàn shì shǐ wǒ jìntuìliǎngnán.
This matter puts me between a hard place and a rock.

心惊肉跳 (xīnjīngròutiào) describes how the heart is startled and the flesh jumps. In other words, one is fearful and filled with apprehension.

大海捞针 (dàhǎilāozhēn) is trying to scoop up a needle from the big ocean, ie. looking for a needle in a haystack.

小题大作 (xiǎotídàzuò) is to make a fuss over a petty concern; or to make a mountain out of a molehill.

Wǒmén bùyào xiǎotídàzuò.
Let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill.

说来话长 (shuōláihuàcháng) means it’s a long story. You would say this before spinning the whole nine yards.

九牛二虎之力 (fèi le jiǔ niú èr hǔ zhī lì) translates to “the strength of nine oxen and two tigers” In other words, a tremendous effort made to accomplish a task.

我们费了九牛二虎之力, 才把那棵树种好.
Wǒmén fèi le jiǔ niú èr hǔ zhī lì, cái bǎ nà kē shù zhòng hǎo.
It took a tremendous effort for us to plant that tree.

无家可归 (wújiākěguī) means without a home to go back to.

Zhànhòu xǔduō rén wújiākěguī.
After the war, many people were left homeless.

天长地久 (tiānchángdìjiǔ) means lasting as long as heaven and earth. Following is one way to declare your ever-lasting love:

天长地久, 此情不渝.
Tiānchángdìjiǔ, cǐ qíng bù yú.
Until the end of time, this love will never change.

Shall we dance?

Dancing Cranes

共舞 (gòng wǔ)
Dancing Together
(Dancing Cranes)

我还没吃饭; 没有力气.
Wǒ hái méi chīfàn; méiyǒu lìqi.
I haven’t eaten yet; don’t have the energy.

我刚吃完饭; 太饱了.
Wǒ gāng chī wán fàn; tài bǎo le.
I just had a meal; I’m too full.

Tiānq tài rè le.
The weather is too hot.

Wàimian tài lěng le.
It’s too cold out there.

工作太忙了; 没时间运动.
Gōngzuò tài máng le; méi shíjiān yùndòng.
Too busy with work; no time for doing exercises.

We’ve heard them all. And it’s true that for many people, it isn’t easy to find the time for doing exercises. Nevertheless, it’s important that we get up and move around from time to time to strengthen our bones and muscles and give our blood circulation a boost.

运动 (yùndòng) as a noun means exercises, sports or movements. It can also be used as an action word. 身体 (shēntǐ) means one’s body or one’s health.

要多运动, 身体才会好.
Yào duō yùndòng, shēntǐ cái huì hǎo.
One must do plenty of exercises to have good health.

运动累了, 休息一下吧.
Yùndòng lèi le, xiūxī yīxià ba.
Tired from exercising. Let’s rest a bit.

Did you notice how (tǐ body, form) and (xiū stop, cease) differ only by a tiny horizontal stroke?

The simplest and arguably the most beneficial exercise is brisk walking. (xíng) has a number of meanings. In terms of exercising, it means to go or to move along. (bù) is a step. Therefore, 步行 (bùxíng) means to walk or to go on foot. 散步 (sànbù) is to take a walk or to go for a stroll.

进步 (jìnbù) means to make progress, while 退步 (tuìbù) means to regress.

(pǎo) is to run or to run away. 跑步 (pǎobù) is to run or to march at double step. 慢跑 (màn pǎo) is to jog.

球类运动 (qiú lèi yùndòng) are sports involving a ball, such as basketball and volleyball. We’ve mentioned 游泳 (yóuyǒng swimming) before.

体操 (tǐcāo) are gymnastics.

太极拳 (tàijíquán tai-chi) and 瑜珈 (yú jiā yoga) are low-impact exercise systems.

Dancing counts as exercise, too. 跳舞 (tiàowǔ) is the verb “to dance”, while 舞蹈 (wǔdǎo) is the noun “dance” or “dancing”. (yǎng) is oxygen , and 有氧舞蹈 (yǒu yǎng wǔdǎo) is aerobic dancing.

Wǒ néng qǐng nǐ tiào zhè zhī wǔ ma?
May I ask you for this dance?

How about dancing to the music of “Papa Loves Mambo” and the fantastic voice of Nat King Cole?

In Chinese this song is called 爸爸爱跳曼波 (Bàba Ài Tiào Màn Bō) or 爸爸爱跳猛步 (Bàba Ài Tiào Měng Bù). (měng) means vigorous or energetic. To hear the Chinese version of this song, click here.

To see a copy of the Chinese lyrics, click on this link and scroll down until you find “爸爸爱跳猛步”.

Following are a few words you may need help on:

潇洒 (xiāosǎ) means carefree or “cool”, implying handsomeness.

Tā de nánpēngyou hěn xiāosǎ.
Her boyfriend is quite cool.

开怀 (kāihuái) is to be happy or to enjoy to one’s heart’s content.
摇摇摆摆 (yáoyáobǎibǎi) is to swing and sway.
往往来来 (wǎng wǎng lái lái) means to come and go to and fro.
愉快 (yúkuài) is to be cheerful.
(dīng) is to gaze at.
弯腰 (wānyāo) is to bend down at the waist or to stoop.
奏乐 (zòuyuè) is to play music.

See? You can have fun singing and dancing and also learn Chinese at the same time. This is like “killing two birds with one stone”. Do you know how to say this idiom in Chinese?

Learn the Chinese words for luck and probability

同花大顺 (tónghuā dà shùn)
Royal Flush

命运 (mìngyùn) is a person’s destiny or fate. 运气 (yùnqi) is one’s fortune or luck.

幸运 (xìngyùn) means lucky.

好运 (hǎoyùn) is good luck.

好命 (hǎo mìng) means being a fortunate person.

Tā zhēn hǎo mìng!
He is such a fortunate man!

唉, 运气不好, 有什么办法?
Ài, yùnqi bùhǎo, yǒu shénme bànfǎ?
Oh, well, just my luck; what can I do?

Perhaps the secret to your luck in 2013 is in the stars.

Nǐ shǔyú shénme xīngzuò?
What’s your Zodiac sign?

I know next to nothing about astrology, but I thought it would be fun to learn the names of the 12 signs of the Zodiac as they involve a number of animals and inanimate items. We’ve already learned that is a seat.

牡羊座 (mǔ yáng zuò) Aries, the male goat
金牛座 (jīn niú zuò) Taurus, the golden ox
双子座 (shuāng zǐ zuò) Gemini, the twins
巨蟹座 (jù xiè zuò) Cancer, the giant crab
狮子座 (shīzi zuò) Leo, the lion
处女座 (chǔnǚ zuò) Virgo, the virgin
天秤座 (tiān chèng zuò) Libra, the heavenly scale
天蝎座 (tiān xiē zuò) Scorpio, the heavenly scorpion
射手座 (shèshǒu zuò) Sagittarius, the hunter
魔羯座 (mó jié zuò) Capricorn, the mystical goat
水瓶座 (shuǐ píng zuò)Aquarius, the water bottle
双鱼座 (shuāng yú zuò) Pisces, the pair of fish

One thing I do know is that the odds of a good thing coming your way increase with the efforts you put in to make it happen. For example, if you wish to be able to speak Chinese fluently, your chances of doing so will increase greatly if you immerse yourself in a Chinese-speaking environment or otherwise interact with Chinese-speaking people and read many Chinese articles at your own level or slightly above.

或然率 (huòránlǜ) is the probability of occurrence of an event. In mathematics, probability is called 机率 (jī lǜ) or 概率 (gàilǜ).

In a card game, the probability of getting a pair, or 一对 (yī duì), in a hand is much higher than getting a royal flush, or 同花大顺 (tónghuā dà shùn). This is because there are very many ways to form a pair from a deck of cards and only 4 ways to make a royal flush.

When shooting basketball hoops, or 投篮 (tóu lán), it’s not unlikely for you to make three tries and fail all three times. However, if you try one hundred times, you might actually make a few baskets. This could be due to pure luck or it could be due to the fact that you have figured out from the repeated executions of the same motions how to align your knee, hip and elbow with the basket and how to flick your wrist to make the ball spin into the ring in a graceful arc.

Zhèi wèi qiú yuán de tóu lán mìngzhòng lǜ hěn gāo.
This player has a high shooting proficiency.

By the same token, the probability of your achieving your goal is proportional to the amount of time and effort you put into working toward it. We should work hard and be ready when opportunity knocks. The Chinese saying, 十年磨剑 (shí nián mó jiàn sharpening the sword for 10 years), could be paraphrased as follows:

多做准备, 等待时机来临.
Duō zuò zhǔnbèi, děngdài shíjī láilín.
Be well prepared and wait for the opportunity to come.

Following are a few samples of 2013 New Year’s resolutions:

Wǒ jīnnián juéxīn yào zuò gè gènghǎo de rén,
My new year resolutions are to be a better person,

bǎ zhōngwén xué de gènghǎo,
improve my Chinese,

bìngqiě shùnlì bìyè.
and get graduated.

For “improve my Chinese”, you could also say:

zài zhōngwén fāngmiàn gèngjiā jìnbù
make even more progress with respect to Chinese

Wǒ juédìng jīnnián yào duō zuò xiē yùndòng.
I’ve decided to do more physical exercises this year.

With a resolution made, it takes perseverance, 毅力 (yìlì), and hard work, 努力 (nǔlì), to obtain the anticipated results. A bit of good luck won’t hurt either. May all your wishes come true.

Zhù nǐ xīn xiǎng shì chéng.
May you achieve your heart’s desires.

Happy New Year in Chinese

It’s a brand new year again! The first order of business, of course, is to make one or more New Year’s resolutions. We all know that resolutions are easy to make and just as easy to break. It takes determination and great effort to keep one’s resolution and follow through. And what joy the rewarding outcome! Think of Breanna Bond.

新年 (xīnnián) is the New Year. 目标 (mùbiāo) is an objective or a goal. 计划 (jìhuà) is a plan or a project. 新年新计划 (xīnnián xīn jìhuà) means the new plans for the new year to reach your objective.

Please note that (huá), pronounced in the second tone, means to row a boat, as in 划船 (huáchuán).

志愿 (zhìyuàn) is an aspiration or an objective, and 决心 (juéxīn determination, resolution) is required to reach one’s goal. The following refer to the action of resolving to do something to accomplish an objective:

下决心 (xiàjuéxīn)
立下决心 (lì xià juéxīn)
立下志愿 (lì xià zhìyuàn)

Tā xiàjuéxīn tíngzhǐ xùjiǔ.
He resolved to stop drinking excessively.

她立下志愿, 一定要考上大学.
Tā lì xià zhìyuàn, yīdìng yào kǎo shàng dàxué.
She was determined to make it into college.

One way to keep your resolution is to make it a 座右铭 (zuòyòumíng), which is a motto or a maxim that one constantly keeps in mind. (zuò) is a seat, (yòu) is the right-hand side, and (míng) is an inscription.

With your heart set on a goal, you make a resolution; that’s not unlike making a “Cross my heart” schoolyard oath. And what do you get when you make a long stroke across the character for the heart, (xīn)? Yes, (bì), which means certainly or surely.

Mind this remark made by Confucius thousands of years ago:

Sān rén xíng bìyǒuwǒshī.
When three people walk together, among them there will definitely be a teacher for me.

This could also be interpreted as, “When I’m with two other people, I can definitely learn from at least one of them.” In other words, you can always learn something from anyone.

必须 (bìxū) is an adverb that means “must” or “have to”, while 必需 (bìxū) is an adjective that means “needed” or “necessary”. Even many Chinese incorrectly use these two words interchangeably. Below is a sentence to help you see the distinction.

Wǒmén bìxū mǎi zhèxiē bìxūpǐn.
We will need to purchase these necessities.

必定 (bìdìng) and 必然 (bìrán) both mean definitely or certainly.

不必 (bùbì) means “need not”.

Bùbì kèqi.
No need to be so courteous. (Make yourself at home.)

何必 (hébì) means “What’s the point of doing it?” or “There is no need to do it.” I remember walking with a friend of mine on the campus of a research institution years ago. Her surname is (Hé). Apparently a couple male colleagues got interested in my friend. They approached and asked what her name was. She answered impatiently,

Hébì wèn!
No need to ask!

From then on, my friend became known by the nickname 何必问 (Hé Bìwèn).

未必 (wèibì) means “not necessarily”.

What’s your New Year’s resolution? Or, perhaps your New Year’s wish or aspiration, 愿望 (yuànwàng)? If you email it to me in English, I could include a Chinese translation of the first ten submissions in my next blog.

Happy New Year in everyday Chinese is:

Xīnnián kuàilè!
Happy New Year!

Or, you could say,

恭喜! 新年好!
Gōngxǐ! Xīnnián hǎo!
Congratulations! Have a nice New Year!

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