10 Chinese Equivalents to Common English Idioms

Friday, October 26, 2012 | By:

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.”


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15 Responses to 10 Chinese Equivalents to Common English Idioms

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report

  2. rocco says:

    My fav is Xīshēng xiǎo wǒ, wánchéng dà wǒ
    牺牲小我,完成大我. I’ve taken more than my share for the ole team.

    • Keoni Everington (华武杰) says:

      I know what you mean Rocco.

  3. airlie pelletier says:

    keoni, i haven’t read your work before, but this was very nice and entertaining! i could also tell there was very much time and research that went into it. well done!

    • Keoni Everington (华武杰) says:

      Thanks Airlie!

  4. Geof says:

    I’ve also seen 顧客至上 used a lot in a similar context as “the customer is always right,” albeit more as a creed than an explanation.

    • Keoni Everington (华武杰) says:

      Thanks Geof, that’s a good one. I just learned a new Chinese variation.

  5. Pingback: Learning the right chengyu the right way | Hacking Chinese - 揭密中文

  6. Paul says:

    Hi Keoni,

    Thanks for this overview. Learning basic Chinese is one thing, learning the myriad of expressions and idioms is quite another. Your listing certainly helps on the way :-)

    • Keoni Everington (华武杰) says:

      You’re welcome, I’m glad I could be of some help with your Mandarin studies.

  7. Nicoletta says:

    I’ve been studying chinese for 2 years and half, and I’m quite interested in chengyu; I found your post very nice and helpful.
    do you know any books I can read about this topic? not merely a list of the most common chengyu and things like that…I’m much more interested in the story behind chengyu, the usage, the structure, in other words in the linguistic aspect of chengyu.
    thank you

    • Keoni Everington (华武杰) says:

      I really enjoyed book series titled “Chinese Idioms” (Peng’s Chinese Treasury) by Tan Huay Peng. I think it’s out of print, but there are still a few on Amazon and other sites.

  8. Rocco Taldin says:

    你好 华武杰, great article. Can you suggest a site the has Chinese pronounciations? 谢谢

  9. Rainy days says:

    You clearly do not know what to save something for a rainy day means!

  10. Rainy days says:

    You clearly do not know what to save something for a rainy day means. the Chengyu you have quoted as being an equivalent would be much closer to a translation of the proverb “why put off until tomorrow what you can do today.”

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