Chinese Idiom Explained: 九牛一毛

August 08, 2022

“九牛一毛" (jiǔ niú yī máo) is a popular Chinese idiom that comes from Bao Ren Shao Qing, by Sima Qian, from the Han dynasty, which can be literally translated as "Nine oxen, one hair" in English.

In this blog, we want to share with you both the Chinese and the English retelling of the original story behind "九牛一毛" (jiǔ niú yī máo), what it means, as well as how to use it in a sentence.

Let’s dive in!

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During the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty, Li Ling led his troops towards the Xiongnu enemy troops (the Huns). The troops were defeated and Li Ling had to surrender to the Huns. When Emperor Wu heard about this he was livid. Even the cabinet ministers were scolding Li Ling saying he was useless and disloyal. Emperor Wu asked Sima Qian, a famous Chinese historian, for his opinion on the matter. Sima Qian said that Li Ling only had five thousand soldiers, and though he was surrounded by eighty thousand cavalrymen, he was still able to kill more than ten thousand of the enemy’s men. He is a worthy general.

Emperor Wu heard Sima Qian defending Li Ling and ordered Sima Qian to be locked up and tortured. After receiving such disgrace, Sima Qian became suicidal. But he reconsidered his situation: the death of someone as lowly as him, in the eyes of the rich and powerful, would be nothing more than ‘a hair shed from nine bulls’. Not only would he receive no sympathy, he would also be ridiculed.

Therefore, Sima Qian decided that he would bear the pain and live on. In the end, he was finally able to finish his most renowned work – Shi Ji (Historical Record).

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This idiom is a metaphor for the insignificant and minute; that is, something small and insignifcant amongst a large quantity.

jiǔ (Nine)

九jiu- nine

niú (Ox/Cow)

牛niu cow


一 yi number one

máo (Hair/Fur)

毛 fur, hair


Zhèxiē qián duìyú yīgè bǎi wàn fùwēng lái shuō bu guò shì jiǔniúyīmáo.
This amount of money to a millionaire is like a drop in the ocean.

zhīshì yǒng wú zhǐjìng, gèrén suǒ xué rú jiǔniúyīmáo.
Knowledge and intellect is boundless, the knowledge of a single person is like a drop in the ocean.

We have more Chinese Idioms in store for you!