For those of you that have studied and practiced spoken Chinese long enough to communicate the basics but still struggle trying to convert common English idioms directly into Chinese then this is for you. Here is a list of ten Chinese equivalents of popular English sayings to get you started.
1. The customer is always right
Gùkè shì shàngdì
The Chinese version of the English expression takes the concept of customer service even more seriously. Word for word, this translates as “the customer is God. ” If this only held true with the taxi drivers in Beijing!
2. Where there’s a will, there’s a way
Yǒu zhì zhě shì jìng chéng
The first half of this expression “有志者” means “people who have strong determination.” The second half “事竟成” means “something will eventually succeed.”
This expression comes from an ancient battle in which a general (Geng Yan), despite being badly wounded, lead his army to victory for the sake of his emperor (Liu Xiu). The emperor praised his strong will to overcome adversity in battle with this expression.
3. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks
Lǎo gǒu wán bù chū xīn bǎxì)
The translation is very similar to English “old dogs can’t play new tricks.”
4. The grass is always greener on the other side
Zhè shān wàngzhe nà shān gāo
Instead of an analogy of a cow looking at grass, the Chinese version takes it from the point of view of one mountain staring in envy at the superior height of it’s rival . It translates into “this mountain looks at that mountain’s height.
5. To take one for the team
Xīshēng xiǎo wǒ, wánchéng dà wǒ
In Chinese, this expression can be used in the simpler since of a player taking a sacrifice for his team, but it can also apply to much greater sacrifices such as a soldier for his country. Translated directly it means “sacrifice the small self, complete the greater self (collective or nation).”
6. Don’t judge a book by its cover
Búyào yǐ mào qǔ rén
In this case, the Chinese version is more literal than the English idiom. It simply means “don’t use appearance to choose a person.”
7. The pot calling the kettle black
Wǔshí bù xiào bǎi bù
It took me a long time to learn this one, but it’s definitely a useful equivalent to the common English expression. Instead of cookware, the Chinese idiom to express hypocrisy refers to a person that has retreated fifty paces mocking someone that has retreated one hundred paces, “fifty steps laughs at one hundred steps.”
The last three are examples of Chinese chengyu (成语 chéngyǔ), which are set phrases that are usually four characters in length. No student of the Chinese language worth his or her salt can afford to neglect learning a fair share of chengyu at some stage. The language is replete with at least 5,000 such phrases.
8. To stand out from the crowd
Hè lì jī qún
Being quite tall, I hear this chengyu （four character set phrases) a lot in China. The expression conjures up the image of a tall, graceful crane standing among a large flock of ordinary chickens, “crane stands among a flock of chickens.”
9. To save for a rainy day
Wèi yǔ chóu móu
In the Chinese chengyu equivalent, the reference is to a sealing off a house before the next storm, “未雨” can be translated to mean “before rain”, while “绸缪” means “to bind and tie down something down really tight.” Put it all together and you get “repair your broken doors and windows before it rains.”
10. Kill two birds with one stone
Yī shí èr niǎo
This chengyu is quite simple and straightforward, it simply means “one stone two birds.”