5 Essential Chinese Idioms You Should Know Before Visiting China

Idioms (or Chengyu) are an important part of learning Mandarin Chinese, but many language learners tend to forgo them simply because they consider them ‘dangerous’.

Photo by Rusty Clark ~ 100K Photos via Flickr

And it seems that newbies to the Mandarin language aren’t the only ones who think this way; in fact, recently China’s government launched a war against the use of puns and idioms in the media. Why?

Well, Mandarin is a tonal language where the rise or the fall of a tone can make the difference between spouting an insult or putting together a polite sentence.

These pitfalls may cause learners like you to think that it’s better to say nothing at all rather than run the risk of offending someone with the incorrect use of an idiom. However, in order to become fluent, it is absolutely necessary that you begin to get a grasp on proper idioms and how to use them.

So, before you give up on the idiom completely, check out these five common ones and start putting them into practice!

1.  全力以赴 (quán lì yǐ fù)

This idiom means to “exert all your strength” or to “give it your best effort”. You should use this idiom to refer to actions that are not yet completed in order to indicate that the subject plans on putting their best effort forward in the future (e.g. “He will exert all his strength in the job interview).

2.  九牛一毛 (jiǔ niú yì máo)

This saying translates literally to mean “9 cows and 1 strand of hair” and takes on a meaning similar to the English saying “just a drop in the bucket”.

“Jiǔ niú yì máo” is supposed to indicate that something is just one of so many that it’s impossible to differentiate (e.g. “With the hundreds of interviewees, he was like 1 strand of hair amongst 9 cows.”)

3.  抛砖引玉 (pāo zhuān yǐn yù)

The direct meaning of this idiom is to “cast a brick to attract jade”, in other words, you’re just tossing any old idea out there in hopes of attracting a better one.

If you’re taking part in a conversation and chuck out a ‘brick’ you are hoping that it will help your fellow speakers come up with a ‘jade’ to contribute (e.g. “I know my idea isn’t very good, I’m just casting a brick to attract jade.”)

4.  乱七八糟 (luàn qī bā zāo)

If you’re looking to express disgust over something happening in your life, this idiom is perfect! Literally, it indicates that something is a mess.

This idiom can be used to refer to both concrete things (i.e. a messy car) and abstract concepts (i.e. a messy idea). (E.g. “His responses in the interview were really messy.”)

5.  自由自在 (zì yóu zì zài)

This is another idiom that can be applied to the abstract as its meaning translates to “free and easy”. This positive idiom can be used when describing personalities, your own feelings, or even places (e.g. “Although he did badly in the interview, he seemed like a free and easy person.”)

With these 5 common Chinese idioms, you should be ready to awe and impress your colleagues and friends with your newfound knowledge. However, knowing a few clever idioms is only a small step in your larger language journey so make sure to sign up for some excellent language classes and keep your skills sharp with free online placement tests.

With the right foundation in place, you’ll be more than ready to wield these idioms with confidence and charm. So what are you waiting for? Quán lì yǐ fù (give it your best effort)!