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.

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:

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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