The ability to recite “chengyu”, or Chinese idioms, is often a litmus test in China to show not only your language abilities but even your intellect. Learn all you need to know about Chinese sayings along with 21 useful chengyu that are sure to impress your Chinese friends.
Before I share with you 21 common chengyu, you may be wondering…
What is Chinese Chengyu?
Chinese people take pride in both their language and history, so seeing that chengyu tie both of these together, it comes as no surprise that Chinese idioms are super important in China’s popular culture.
When in China, you’re always going to encounter locals speaking chengyu, whether it be when giving a toast, teaching a concept in school, giving friendly advice, or just in simple conversation.
So now that you understand the cultural importance of chengyu, let’s cover 21 common chengyu and what they mean in English.
21 Brilliant Chinese Idioms Worth Memorizing (aka chengyu)
Below are 21 Chinese idioms that are super useful and worth committing to memory as you’re learning the Chinese language.
I’ve provided the Chinese characters, the pinyin, and a short explanation of how each chengyu is used to help learn each one.
马马虎虎 / mǎmǎhūhū – Just so-so or a careless person
This is usually the first chengyu anyone taking a course in Chinese will learn because it’s really easy to use.
When someone asks you questions like, “How was your meal?” or, “How was the movie?”, you can simply respond with “mǎmǎhūhū” if it was nothing great.
入乡随俗 / rùxiāngsuísú – When in Rome, do as the Romans do
When visiting China, you’re bound to deal with plenty of culture shock. When I first visited China in 2010, getting used to the food was my biggest cultural adjustment.
To help me adjust, locals often used this idiom on its own as an encouragement encouragement. You’re likely to hear it as well should you encounter any strong culture shock while in China.
一石二鸟 / yīshí’èrniǎo – To kill two birds with one stone
Almost any idiom in English can also be expressed in Chinese like this one.
To use 一石二鸟 / yīshí’èrniǎo, you can start by introducing your master plan or comment on someone else’s plan by saying, “这样很好。可以一石二鸟。/ Zhèyàng hěn hǎo. Kěyǐ yīshí’èrniǎo” or, “This is really good. You can kill two birds with one stone.”
一路平安 / yīlù píng’ān – Have a safe and pleasant journey!
You can use this phrase when saying goodbye to someone that is leaving for a trip or vacation. You’ll likely hear Chinese say this to you as you check out of a hotel and board a train or plane.
Some Chinese may also say, “一路顺风 / yīlù shùnfēng,” which is similar to the phrase “Bon voyage!”
人山人海 / rénshānrénhǎi – Sea of people
Chinese aren’t shy about saying there are tons of people in China. So you’re likely to hear this chengyu in crowded places in China.
You can always use the chengyu on its own to describe a crowded situation, but if you want to say a full sentence, you can use this model:
place + preposition + 人山人海.
For example, “长城上人山人海！ / chángchéng shàng rénshānrénhǎi!” means, it’s insanely crowded on the Great Wall!
说曹操，曹操就到 / Shuō cáocāo, cáocāo jiù dào – Speak of the devil and he shall appear
While a bit of a tongue twister, this chengyu is quite common and easy to use given it has an English equivalent that most of us have heard before.
Simply say this phrase when you are talking about someone and they suddenly appear out of nowhere.
叶公好龙 / yègōnghàolóng – To pretend to like something when actually you hate or fear it
How many times in your life have you pretended to like something when you actually hate it?
While in China, my local friends always wanted to eat duck feet together and I always went along with it to not spoil the fun.
When one of my friends finally realized I hated duck feet, she said, “你吃鸭抓抓就是叶公好龙，只在嘴上说说，并不真的喜欢。以后我们就吃披萨。怎么样？/ Nǐ chī yā zhuā zhuā jiùshì yègōnghàolóng, zhǐ zài zuǐ shàng shuō shuō, bìng bù zhēn de xǐhuān. Yǐhòu wǒmen jiù chī pīsà. Zěnme yàng?”.
In English, she meant:
“You say you like duck feet when you actually don’t. How about we just eat pizza from here on?”
民以食为天 / mín yǐ shí wéi tiān – People view food as their heaven
This five-character chengyu is a classical way of saying there is nothing more important than food.
You can use this in discussions on health and fitness to describe the importance of food or for more serious conversations such as the importance of food in solving world hunger.
幸灾乐祸 / xìngzāilèhuò – To gloat about someone else’s misfortune
Have you ever fallen down and instead of getting a helping hand from your friend, they laugh instead and make you feel even more embarrassed?
In these types of situations, should you encounter them in China, you can say, “不要幸灾乐祸！/ bùyào xìngzāilèhuò!” or, “Don’t gloat on my misfortune!”
Trust me…they’ll be impressed when you do 🙂
自食其果 / zìshíqíguǒ – To reap what you sow
This Chinese idiom can be used on its own and is similar to how we use the phrase “You reap what you sow” in English.
Whenever you say or hear about someone suffering the negative consequences of their own doing, “自食其果” is an appropriate phrase to describe the situation.
百年好合 / bǎinián hǎo hé – Live a long and happy life together
This is the perfect idiom to use with someone who just got married. What it exactly translates to is “100 years together.”
So if you’re ever lucky enough to attend a Chinese wedding, be sure to say this to the newlywed couple. And also don’t forget to bring a red envelope with you!
恭喜发财 / gōngxǐ fācái – Have a prosperous New Year!
One thing you’ll quickly notice about Chinese during each Spring Festival is they are very well-spoken while giving toasts. You’ll also likely be on the receiving end of a toast yourself should you attend a Chinese New Year celebration, so you can use this common idiom in your response.
Otherwise, things may get awkward when your host wishes you good fortune and health and you have nothing to wish them in return!
岁岁平安 / suì suì píng’ān – May you have peace all year round!
This is another Chinese New Year greeting, but you can use this idiom whenever something like a mirror or glass shatters. Like in Western culture, shattering a mirror in China is a bringer of bad luck. But saying this idiom after breaking a mirror will reverse the bad luck!
Why is this the case?
Because the word to shatter in Chinese (碎 / suì) has the same sound as 岁 / suì from this idiom, which has a positive meaning. So keep this idiom in mind should you ever break a mirror or anything that can shatter.
鹤立鸡群 / hèlìjīqún – A crane standing in a flock of chicken (i.e. someone who is outstanding)
As the definition suggests, you can use this Chinese idiom to describe someone that is truly outstanding from others. You can use it to either give encouragement to someone that is talented or praise someone on a job well done.
For example, “你太棒了， 鹤立鸡群！没有人能比得上你！/ nǐ tài bàngle, hèlìjīqún! Méiyǒu rén néng bǐ dé shàng nǐ!”
This sentence means, “You’re so awesome. Just like a crane standing among chickens. No one can match you!”
羊入虎口 / yáng rù hǔkǒu – To tread on dangerous ground
This saying is useful when advising friends not to do something as the result could invite punishment or danger. Let’s say for example your classmate forgot to do their Chinese homework and want to copy yours.
Out of concern that your teacher will catch you, you can say, “不行！你这样可能是羊入虎口。/ Bùxíng! Nǐ zhèyàng kěnéng shì yáng rù hǔkǒu.” or, “No! Doing this can get us into trouble.”
不可思议 / bùkěsīyì – Inconceivable
If something were to ever strike you as incredible to the point where you cannot fathom or speak about it, you can use this idiom to express that emotion.
If you have ever seen the Princess Bride, the Sicilian is constantly surprised by the skills of the Man in Black in his quest to save Princess Buttercup and says nothing but, “Inconceivable!”
If the movie were translated into Chinese, instead of inconceivable, the Sicilian would say, “不可思议!”
骑驴找驴 / qí lǘ zhǎo lǘ – To look for something that’s right under your nose
This is one of my favorite sayings! It’s most similar to the Western expression, “to be right under one’s nose.”
You can use this when you are someone else is looking for something in plain sight.
Say, for example, I’m looking for my glasses when they are on my forehead, you can respond by saying, “眼镜在你额头上，真是骑驴找驴！/ yǎnjìng zài nǐ étóu shàng, zhēnshi qí lǘ zhǎo lǘ!”
挑拨离间 / tiǎobō líjiàn – To drive a wedge between people.
No one likes it when someone drives a wedge between two friends.
If you ever have a friend that gets angry at you over a rumor started by someone, you can tell your friend, “不要相信他。他想在我们中间挑拨离间！/ Bùyào xiāngxìn tā. Tā xiǎng zài wǒmen zhōngjiān tiǎobō líjiàn!” or, “Don’t trust him. He only wants to drive a wedge between us!”
画蛇添足 / huàshétiānzú – To draw legs on a snake (i.e. to overdo something)
This Chinese saying is perfect for artists or chefs that in the effort to improve something that is already perfect add something that makes it worse.
Whenever you’re in a situation like drawing a picture, adding ingredients to a meal, or deciding whether to go out with a scarf or not to be more fashionable and the additional effort is not needed at all, you can use this idiom to express, “Don’t overdo it!” or, “别画蛇添足！/ bié huàshétiānzú!”
三个臭皮匠，顶个诸葛亮 – The wisdom of the masses exceeds that of any individual or many minds are better than one.
Okay now for a hard one that will really impress Chinese locals! This chengyu originates from a mastermind named Zhuge Liang from the Warring States Period.
While I won’t go into the backstory here, the idiom states that ordinary people in groups can outsmart a mastermind.
You can use this when someone encounters a really difficult problem and you offer help to come to a solution. Two minds are better than one right?
有朋自远方来，不亦乐乎 / yǒupéng zì yuǎnfāng lái, bù yì lè hū – It’s always great to see old friends
No list of useful Chinese idioms would be complete without a quote from Confucius!
While this one is a bit tough, it’s really useful for when you see old friends. If you’ve lived in China for several years like me, you and your close friends have probably moved on to live in another Chinese city or moved back home entirely.
When you see each other again, you can always use this idiom in place of “好久不见 / hǎojiǔ bùjiàn,” which conveys less enthusiasm and feeling for a happy reunion.
Wow, after looking over that list, that’s a lot of chengyu!
To help you memorize each of these idioms, I’d focus on learning the meaning and structure behind each character as well as researching the story behind each idiom.
This way you’re much more likely to be able to recall each of them from memory.
Frequently Asked Questions about Chengyu
Below are some of the most frequently asked questions related to Chinese idioms.
A chengyu is a Chinese idiom made up of four characters. There are exceptions where there are more characters, but 4 characters is the norm.
In short, there are thousands of chengyu you can learn. So obviously it’s impossible to learn them all. It’s best to find the most common idioms and try to learn the ones you can use in daily life.
While having some knowledge of Chinese idioms is helpful, it’s not essential. I would focus on the basics in Mandarin until you are an intermediate or advanced speaker. The primary benefit of learning idioms, apart from improving your Chinese, is enriching your knowledge of Chinese history.
As a fluent Mandarin speaker that has only memorized a handful of these idioms, I would focus more on memorizing general vocabulary. You should think of knowing chengyu as a “nice to have” skill whereas expanding your vocabulary is essential.
The Importance of Idioms (chengyu) in China
China’s idioms, or chengyu, are super important to culture. Should you want to enrich your knowledge of Mandarin language and history or simply want to impress locals on your trip to China, try learning some chengyu.
But remember to prioritize learning general vocabulary over chengyu in your studies…
To get started, I’d do some more reading on idioms online along with purchasing some resources on Amazon that introduce commonly used chengyu.