Year of the Tiger and Chinese words and idioms associated with tiger

Tiger's head
Tiger’s Head (Image downloaded from and modified)

The tiger is called 虎 (hǔ), or 老虎 (lǎohǔ), in Chinese. Here, the word 老 (lǎo) does not mean old (in the literal sense), but rather “respectable”, as in 老师 (lǎoshī teacher).

Tiger connotes strength and power. Just look at the forehead of this animal. It’s imprinted with the Chinese word for the king. 王 (wáng)!

谈虎色变 (tánhǔsèbiàn) means to turn pale at the mention of a tiger. This idiom describes a terrible something, the mere mention of which would make you turn pale.

A female tiger is considered even fiercer than a male tiger. This is why a termagant wife is often referred to as a tigress, or 母老虎 (mǔlǎohǔ). You had better behave yourself if you have one at home.

For a tough job, a long-nose plier won’t do. I use my 老虎钳 (lǎohǔqián pincer pliers) instead.

The saying, 虎父无犬子 (hǔfùwúquǎnzi) translates literally to: A tiger will not sire a mere dog. In other words, a wise goose never lays a tame egg.

A tiger incites fear in everyone, but there are exceptions. The Chinese saying 初生之犊不畏虎 (chūshēngzhīdúbùwèihǔ) tells us that a newly born calf is not scared of the tiger because it is ignorant of the tiger’s ferocity. This is what one might say about the daring, dauntless young people who have no inkling of what danger or disaster they will be facing.

A well-known tale from the Chinese classic “The Robbers from Liang-shan Bog” (aka Water Margin) features a Robin Hood style hero named 武松 (Wǔsōng), who killed a tiger with bare fists. An animated version can be found at this youtube link.

As you can see, 武松 (Wǔsōng) was totally drunk when he took the tiger on and subdued it in that fashion. No one in his right mind would have had the guts to do so.
Then again, there is the so-called paper tiger, or 纸老虎 (zhǐlǎohǔ), whom we need not heed.
All right, following are a number of additional Chinese idioms and phrases for you to study. Try to think of situations to which you could apply these idioms.

马马虎虎 (mǎmǎhūhū) means careless, casual, just passable, or so-so.

狼吞虎咽 (lángtūnhǔyàn) means to devour ravenously or to wolf down the food.

虎视耽耽 (hǔshídāndān) is to glare like a tiger that is eyeing its prey.

调虎离山 (diàohǔlíshān) means to lure the tiger out of the mountains. It is a strategic move of luring the enemy away from his base.

放虎归山 (fànghǔguīshān) is to let the tiger return to the mountains, planting the seed of calamity for the future.

为虎添翼 (wèihǔtiānyì) means to give wings to a tiger, making it even more powerful. The implied meaning is to assist an evildoer.

虎头蛇尾 (hǔtóushéwěi) means starting out like a tiger and ending like a harmless garden snake. This phrase can be used to describe a project with fine start and poor finish.

生龙活虎 (shēnglónghuóhǔ) means to be dauntless as a dragon and lively as a tiger; in other words, full of vim and vigour.

狐假虎威 (hújiǎhǔwēi) means to bully people by flaunting one’s powerful connections, in the same way that the fox might borrow the tiger’s terror by walking in the latter’s company.

不入虎穴, 焉得虎子?
Bùrùhǔxué, yāndéhǔzǐ?
How can you catch tiger cubs without entering the tiger’s lair? (Nothing ventured, nothing gained.)

May the energy and vitality of the tiger rub off on us and spur us to take on a new challenge in 2022. Hopefully you will be favored with some external assistance that will enable you to forge ahead with redoubled power, like a tiger with wings, or 如虎添翼 (rúhǔtiānyì).

Chūnjié kuàilè!
Happy Spring Festival!

New: “5 Stories in Chinese – Book 2 Tales from around the World” is now available at
To listen to a reading of the first story in this eBook, please click on this youtube link.

5 Stories in Chinese – Book 1 Chinese Tales” is also available at
To listen to a reading of the first story in this eBook, please click on this youtube link.

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