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.


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