Chinese idioms involving the chicken

Crowing Rooster

Crowing Rooster

Wake up! Wake up! The Year of the Rooster will soon be upon us!

My grandfather lived on the countryside in his retirement. When I was little, I sometimes stayed over at his place. Every morning, the neighboring farmer’s rooster would hoist himself on the roof of the chicken coop, stretch his neck out as far as it would go and let out a series of three-syllable “O-O-O” cries to wake everyone up, his face red from the excessive straining. To the Chinese, the rooster is far from being “chicken”. Rather, it is the symbol for diligence, dutifulness and righteousness. Naturally, a bit of cockiness goes with that as well.

(jī) refers to all chickens. 公鸡 (gōngjī male chicken) is a rooster and 母鸡 (mǔjī female chicken) is a hen. Little chicks are called 小鸡 (xiǎojī). Please note that 田鸡 (tiánjī) is not a field chicken, but a frog.

(tí) is to crow, to cry or to weep aloud.

Zǎochén tīngdào gōngjī tí jiào.
In the morning I hear the rooster crowing.

Wǎnshàng tīngjiàn yīng’ér tíkū.
In the evening I hear the baby crying.

When talking about the eyes of chicken, say 鸡的眼睛 (jī de yǎnjing) rather than 鸡眼 (jīyǎn) as the latter refers to a corn that could form on one’s feet.

It is interesting that the Chinese talk about chicken bumps, 鸡皮疙瘩 (jīpígēda), rather than goose bumps.

鸡毛 (jīmáo) is chicken feather, light and insignificant. Therefore 鸡毛蒜皮 (jīmáosuànpí chicken feathers and garlic skins) means trivial things.

In ancient China the army made use of an arrow-shaped token of authority. Whoever saw this 令箭 (lìngjiàn) must obey the order the carrier read from it. Now, if you don’t look closely, you might mistake a large rooster’s tail feather for that arrow-shaped token. Therefore the idiom 拿着鸡毛当令箭 (ná zhe jīmáodānglìngjiàn) is often used to describe a situation in which a person makes a big fuss about a superior’s casual remark and justifies actions that lead to undesirable results. This idiom also applies to a person who takes advantage of other people through false authority.

As the rooster’s tail is made up of multiple feathers of different colors, a mixed alcoholic drink is called 鸡尾酒 (jīwěijiǔ cocktail).

鸡蛋 (jīdàn) are chicken eggs, and we all know that eggshells are quite fragile, hence the idiom used in the following sentence.

Zhèjiù xiàng shì jīdànpèngshítóu.
This is like knocking an egg against a rock (no chance to prevail).

Normally eggs sold at the market would not come with bones. However, a nitpicking person might still pick an egg over and try to find a bit of bone in it. The action of intentionally trying to find trivial faults in others is referred to as 鸡蛋里面挑骨头 (jīdàn lǐmiàn tiǎo gútou).

(shǒu) is the classical word for the head or a leader.

When pronounced in the second tone, the word (wéi) means (shì to be). Would you rather be the leader of a small company than a minion in a large corporation? If so, the following saying reflects your mentality.

宁为鸡首, 不为牛后.
Níng wéi jī shǒu, bùwéiniúhòu.
I’d rather be the head of a rooster than the behind of an ox.

鸡犬不宁 (jīquǎnbùníng) describes general turmoil, in which even fowls and dogs are not at ease. This idiom can be used to describe wartime or a disturbed condition at home.

他们动辄吵架, 闹得家里鸡犬不宁.
Tāmen dòngzhé chǎojià, nào de jiā lǐ jīquǎnbùníng.
They quarrel frequently, upsetting the entire household.

As you can see from the above two sentences, the word (níng) can stand for.
宁愿 (nìngyuàn prefer, would rather) or 安宁 (ānníng peaceful, calm).

Chickens are not known for their physical strength. 手无缚鸡之力 (shǒuwúfùjīzhīlì lacking the strength to truss up a chicken) is an expression used for describing a weak person.

It follows that one should not need a hefty ox cleaver to butcher a chicken. If someone uses a sledge hammer to crack a nut, a bilingual person might laugh at him or her and say, “杀鸡用牛刀 (shājīyòngniúdāo). That’s an overkill.”

Last year we talked about 杀鸡儆猴 (shājījǐnghóu), which means to kill the chicken to frighten the monkey. This method of warning by example has often been employed in the political arena.

杀鸡取卵 (shājīqǔluǎn kill the hen to get the egg) is the equivalent of the western saying: “Kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.” Let’s not be shortsighted, but spare the poor hen.

And forget about stealing the chicken. The chicken might get away and you would have wasted the rice that you scattered on the ground to attract it. If you went for wool and came back shorn, people might say (with a smirk):

Failed to steal the chicken and lost the grains of rice.

A wooden chicken is stiff and unable to move. The Chinese use this term to describe a person who is stunned, dumbfounded or transfixed with fear or amazement.

他站在那儿, 呆若木鸡.
Tā zhàn zài nàr, dāiruòmùjī.
He stood there thunderstruck.

落汤鸡 (luòtānjī) means a drenched chicken, another chicken expression used for describing a person.

雨下得很大, 把他淋得像只落汤鸡.
Yǔ xià de hěndà, bǎ tā lín de xiàng zhī luòtānjī.
There was a downpour, and he was drenched through.

Please note that the unit to use when referring to most animals is (zhī), rather than (gè). Therefore, you would say 一只鸡 (yī zhī jī) and not 一个鸡 (yīgè jī). For a discussion of the commonly used units of measure in Chinese, please see Chapter 6 of “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes”.

As you may have found out, many of the four-character Chinese idioms are based on legends, anecdotes or historical events and personages. Therefore one should be careful not to take them at face value. For example, 聞雞起舞 (wén jī qǐ wǔ) does not mean “Smell the aroma of the fried chicken, get up and dance with joy.” Here, means to hear, and stands for 舞劍 (wǔ jiàn), i.e. practicing martial art using a sword. The idiom 聞雞起舞 (wén jī qǐ wǔ) is based on an anecdote about a famous general, 祖逖 (Zǔ tì), of the Jin Dynasty who rose at the crack of dawn each day to do physical exercises to strengthen his body. This general was a fine example of diligence in one’s studies and self-improvement. If you assume this attitude in studying Chinese or any other subject, you should see good progress in due time.

Are you ready to celebrate the Chinese lunar New Year? I think the lively song at this link will help get you in the mood.

If you would like to play this tune on your piano keyboard, here is a simple music sheet for Gong Xi Gong Xi I put together using MuseScore: gong_xi_gong_xi

Happy New Year!


Learn Chinese word radical – Claws



The Chinese character, (zhuǎ), stands for claws or talons. Does it not look like a drawing of a chicken’s foot? Some people pronounce this word as (zhǎo). Colloquially we say 爪子 (zhuǎzi) or 爪子 (zhǎozi). Either way is fine. Just make sure that you don’t confuse (zhuǎ) with (guā melon or gourd). 瓜子 (guāzǐ) are dried melon seeds that people enjoy eating as a snack.

We know that (yá) are teeth. Literally, 爪牙 (zhǎoyá) are talons and fangs. However, this term refers to a bad guy’s minions.

张牙舞爪 (zhāngyáwǔzhǎo) is to bare fangs and brandish claws, i.e. making threatening gestures.

魔爪 (mózhǎo) means the devil’s talons or a monster’s grip. 鸡爪 (jī zhuǎ) are chicken claws or chicken feet. (I know which Chinese dish you are thinking of.) 鳞爪 (línzhǎo) are fish scales and bird claws, or bits and fragments. It often appears in the phrase 一鳞半爪 (yīlínbànzhǎo one scale and half a claw).

Wǒ duìyú zhè jiàn shì zhǐ zhīdào yīlínbànzhǎo.
I only have scrappy information about this matter.

In the character, (zhuā), you see both the “hand” radical and the “claws” radical. Therefore it should not surprise you that this word means to grab, to clutch, to scratch, to catch or to arrest.

Tā zhuā dào yī zhī jī.
He caught a chicken.

Dìdi zhuā le yībǎ guāzǐ qù kè.
Younger brother grabbed a handful of melon seeds to munch on.

The blog post at this link discusses a Chinese children’s song about an eagle trying to catch little chicken. There you will learn the word for wings. Then you will know how to say chicken wings in Chinese.

(pá) means to crawl or to climb.

Nǐ xǐhuān pá shān ma?
Do you like to climb mountains?

Many words contain the “claws” radical in a squashed form.

(yǎo) is to ladle up, spoon up, or scoop up.

Tā yǎo le yī wǎn tāng gěi wǒ.
She ladled up a bowl of soup for me.

(ài) is love (noun), to love, to treasure, or to enjoy doing something.

(mì), or 寻觅 (xúnmì), is to look for or to seek.

(shòu) means to give or award, to vest power in someone, or to instruct (i.e. to confer knowledge). 教授 (jiàoshòu) is a professor.

Lǎo jiàoshòu jīntiān yòu chídào le.
The old professor is late again today.

(yuán) means to help or to rescue. For example, 援助 (yuánzhù) is to help or to provide support. 援救 (yuánjiù) is to rescue or to save someone.

(nuǎn) means warm or to warm up. 暖和 (nuǎnhuo) means nice and warm. You can use this term to describe a balmy day or a warm jacket.

(shùn) is a wink or a blink. 瞬间 (shùnjiān) means a moment, momentary or momentarily.

Nèi kē liúxīng shùnjiān jiù bùjiànle.
That shooting star disappeared in the blink of an eye.

Chinese Idioms Containing Similes

Bright and Beautiful

Bright and Beautiful – Picture a tiny hummingbird weaving among the blossoms and twigs. It was there moments before I snapped the photo.

In the “Lift Your Veil” song discussed in “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes“, the eyebrows of a pretty girl are likened to a crescent moon, her eyes to shiny pearls, her cute little mouth to cherries, and her sunny face to a tree-ripened apple. When we say that something is like something else, we are employing a figure of speech called a “simile”.

We have learned that a mule is considered dumb, as in 笨得像只骡 (bèn de xiàng zhī luó.) As pigs are not put to work and seem to do nothing but eat and sleep, they are the symbol of laziness. 懒得像只豬 (lǎn de xiàng zhī zhū) As for the symbol of slowness, both East and West agree that the snail is it – 慢得像只蜗牛 (màn de xiàng zhī wōniú).

急得像热锅上的蚂蚁 (jí de xiàng règuōshàngdèmǎyǐ) means to be anxious as ants on a hot wok.

美得像仙女下凡 (měi de xiàng xiānnǚ xiàfán) means to be beautiful as a fairy descended to the mundane world. The classical four-character equivalent is 美如天仙 (měi rú tiānxiān).

Classical Chinese similes make use of (rú to be like), (ruò to resemble), and (sì to be similar to). Following are a few common examples.

胆小如鼠 (dǎnxiǎo rú shǔ) means timid as a mouse, or cowardly. 如龙似虎 (rúlóngsìhǔ) means to be as ferocious as dragons and tigers.

呆若木鸡 (dāiruòmùjī) means to be dumbstruck or stunned, like a chicken made of wood.

如花似锦 (rúhuāsìjǐn) means to be beautiful and bright like flowers and silk brocade.

他放弃了如花似锦的前途, 出家去了.
Tā fàngqì le rúhuāsìjǐn de qiántú, chūjiā qù le.
He abandoned his bright and promising future to become a monk.

出家 (chūjiā) specifically means to become a monk rather than just leaving one’s home.

归心似箭 (guīxīnsìjiàn) means to be eager to speed home.

父亲病重, 我归心似箭.
Fùqin bìng zhòng, wǒ guīxīnsìjiàn.
My father is very ill; I can’t wait to get back home.

口若悬河 (kǒuruòxuánhé) means to be eloquent and voluble as a overflowing river.

他口若悬河, 讲了一个多钟头.
Tā kǒuruòxuánhé, jiǎng le yī gè duō zhōngtóu.
He talked eloquently for over one hour.

如临大敌 (rúlíndàdí) means to be anxious and tense as if faced with formidable enemy.

期考快到了; 我们加紧复习, 如临大敌.
Qīkǎo kuài dào le; wǒmén jiājǐn fùxí, rúlíndàdí.
The final exam is coming; we step up our review studies as if gearing up to face a major foe.

骨瘦如柴 (gǔshòurúchái) means thin as a stick of firewood, or thin as a rail.

看他骨瘦如柴, 真令人担心.
Kàn tā gǔshòurúchái, zhēn lìngrén dānxīn.
Looking at his thin frame, it really makes one worry.

如坐针毡 (rúzuòzhēnzhān) decribes an uneasy feeling akin to sitting on a bed of pins and needles.

他没责怪我, 但我如坐针毡.
Tā méi zéguài wǒ, dàn wǒ rúzuòzhēnzhān.
He did not blame me, but I felt ill at ease.

心乱如麻 (xīnluànrúmá) decribes how one is disconcerted like a tangled skein of flax.

我心乱如麻, 不知该怎么办才好.
Wǒ xīnluànrúmá, bùzhī gāi zěnme bàn cái hǎo.
My mind is in such a tangle I don’t know what to do.

心如刀割 (xīnrúdāogē) is to feel as if a knife were piercing one’s heart.

听了这话, 她心如刀割.
Tīng le zhè huà, tā xīnrúdāogē.
After hearing these words, she felt as if a knife were piercing her heart.

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