Popular Chinese Idioms

October 10, 2019

You are probably familiar with the concept of 成语 chéngyǔ (idioms) in Chinese. Maybe you even know a few; if so, we applaud you. Otherwise, we have a few popular Chinese idioms to get you started.

Zhāngsān lǐsì

Any Tom, Dick, or Harry
Literally: Zhang Three, Li Four

This phrase dates back to the Song Dynasty, appearing in multiple pieces of literature from the age.

Nowadays, besides hearing this idiom in full, you may see 张三 or 李四 used as filler names for text or dialogues.

Zhè jiàn shì zhǎo zhuānjiā lái zuò, bùyào zhǎo zhāngsānlǐsì.
Find a professional to do this, don't just use any Tom, Dick, or Harry.

Luànqī bāzāo

At sixes and sevens; in great disorder
Literally: Disorder of seven, eight messes

This idiom refers to two particularly chaotic periods in Chinese history: the Rebellion of the Seven States of the Western Han Dynasty and the Rebellion of the Eight Kings during the Western Jin Dynasty.

To cut a long story short, there was a lot of fighting and bloodshed during both.


Āiyā, wǒ de fángjiān luànqībāzāo de. Wǒ yào shōushí shōushí.
Ugh, my room is a mess. I need to organize it.

Èrhuà bù shuō

To not think twice
Literally: A second word is not said

Dating back to the 1940s, this idiom finds its origins in the work of famous author Lao She.


Tā èrhuà bù shuō jiù bǎ qián jiè gěi tā bàbale.
She lent her father the money without a second thought.

Sānxīn èryì

To be of two minds; to be distracted
Literally: Three hearts, two desires

This idiom hails from the Yuan Dynasty. It seems people have always been indecisive.


考试的时候不要三心二意 。
Kǎoshì de shíhòu bùyào sānxīn'èryì.
When testing, don't let your mind wander.


Literally: Cannot be imagined

We can thank Buddhism for this idiom! In religious contexts, the phrase refers to the subtle boundaries of reality that language and thought cannot describe.


Māmā pāoqì háizi shì bùkěsīyì de.
It is unimaginable for a mother to abandon her child.

Bùjiàn bú sàn

Be there or be square
Literally: Not seen, not leaving.

This idiom first appears in Qing Dynasty literature. It is also the title of a 1998 Chinese rom-com.


Jīntiān wǎnshàng bā diǎn yīqǐ chīfàn, bùjiàn bú sàn.
We're eating together at 8:00 tonight, be there or be square.


So-so; vague; careless
Literally: Horse horse, tiger tiger

As the story goes, there once was an artist who had two sons. One day, the artist was drawing the head of a tiger when he suddenly decided a horse would make a better drawing. Not wanting to waste his materials, he drew the body of a horse onto the tiger's head.


His first son saw the sketch and asked what the creature was. His father told him it was a tiger. The second son saw the drawing and asked what animal was depicted. Wanting to be fair to both parts of his artwork, the artist said it was a horse.


Not long after, the first son was out hunting. He saw a neighbor's horse and shot it, believing it to be a tiger. To reimburse the horse's owner, the artist had to spend his whole life savings and was left destitute.


Not far away, the second son came across a tiger in the woods. Thinking it was a horse, the younger son tried to ride the tiger and was eaten.


Needless to say, the artist was never as vague or careless about his drawings again.


Ānquán jiǎnchá bùnéng mǎmǎhǔhǔ.
Safety checks cannot be done carelessly.

Want to impress your friends even more? Master these Confusing Chinese Synonym Pairs.

Know any other popular Chinese idioms? Share them with us in the comments!

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