Chinese idioms involving goats and monkeys

Prosperous New YearAs the Year of the Ram is transitioning into the Year of the Monkey, I thought it would be good for us to look at some of the Chinese idioms involving these animals.

(yáng) means sheep, ram or goat. Specifically, 綿羊 (miányáng) is the Chinese word for sheep, and 山羊 (shānyáng) are goats. Did you notice the two horns at the top of the Chinese character (yáng)?

A Chinese calligraphy or painting brush made of goat’s hair usually has the word 羊毫 (yángháo) marked on it. They are softer than 狼毫(lángháo), which is made of weasel’s hair.

羊毛(yángmáo) is fleece. The idiom 羊毛出在羊身上(yángmáochūzàiyángshēnshang) describes a situation in which a benefit actually came from one’s own contribution or expenditure. If a sheep receives a fleece blanket as a gift, it will behoove it to remember that the wool came from its own back. In other words, there is no free lunch.

A narrow meandering path is often referred to as 羊腸小道(yángchángxiǎodào). 羊腸(yángcháng) are a goat’s intestines.

掛羊頭賣狗肉(guàyángtóumàigǒuròu) means to display a goat’s head but sell dog meat instead, i.e. to bait and switch.

順手牽羊 (shùnshǒuqiānyáng) means to walk off with someone else’s belonging that is lying around.

亡羊補牢(wángyángbǔláo) means to repair the fence after a sheep is killed (such as by a cayote). This idiom could be used both ways – to say that it’s too late for the lost sheep, or to say that it’s not too late to try to save the other sheep.

Then there is the scapegoat, or 替罪羊 (tìzuìyáng) or 代罪羔羊 (dàizuìgāoyáng). 羔羊 (gāoyáng) is a lamb.

The Chinese character for monkeys is rather interesting in that on the right side is (hóu), which stands for a high official. On the left side is the radical for animals – (hóu). And an idiom comes naturally to mind. 沐猴而冠 (mùhóuérguàn) describes a worthless person who makes himself look impressive, like a monkey that was bathed and dressed in imposing attire. The man in the above image is shown in ancient Chinese government costume, indicating status and power. Now picture a monkey in this outfit.

Compared to 老虎(lǎohǔ tigers), 猴子 (hóuzi monkeys) are weak and powerless. However, when there are no tigers in the mountains, then a monkey could claim to be the king. Therefore the following saying makes fun of people whose abilities do not match the high position they hold.

山上無老虎,猴子稱大王.
Shān shàng wú lǎohǔ, hóuzi chēng dàwáng.

(tóu) is the head, and (nǎo) are the brains. 猴頭猴腦 (hóu tóu hóu nǎo) is an expression used to describe a youngster who is hyperactive, flighty and careless.

A futile attempt to save a situation is often likened to a monky that tries to scoop the moon out of the water but drowns in the process. (jiù) means to rescue, to save or to help.

這就像猴子救月.
Zhè jiù xiàng hóuzi jiù yuè.
This is tantamount to a monkey trying to rescue the moon.

殺雞儆猴 (shājījǐnghóu) or 殺雞給猴看 (shājīgěihóukàn) means to ‘kill a chicken in front of a monkey’, i.e to make an example out of someone. Punishing someone often serves the purpose of frightening others who have a similar plot in mind.

I came across an interesting flower that has an eerie resemblance to a monkey’s face. You can click on this link to see what a 猴蘭 (hóulán monkey orchid) looks like.

The greeting card above shows the following couplet:

財源廣進年年進;
Cáiyuán guǎng jìn niánnián jìn
Financial resources pour in abundantly year after year;

利路亨通日日通.
Lì lù hēngtōng rì rì tōng
Road to profits and riches goes smoothly day after day.

The Chinese believe that the Year of the Monkey brings vitality. Take the “k” out of “monkey”, and you’ll get “money”. May you have all the energy and $ you need to accomplish everything you want in this coming Chinese lunar year.

恭禧发财!
Gōngxǐ fācái!
Have a happy and prosperous New Year!

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.

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:

不要再三心二意了.
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.

外面下着倾盆大雨.
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.

这件事使我进退两难.
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.

我们不要小题大作.
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.

战后许多人无家可归.
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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