Category: chinese idioms

May 14 2010

拔苗助长- bamiaozhuzhang


Literal meaning of each character = uproot,pull/draw out – young plant/seedling – help – grow

The image portrayed  by this useful idiom is of someone pulling at a seedling or small plant thinking it will help it grow faster.  This of course is ridiculous as it’s only water, sunshine and time that causes a plant to grow.  We cannot make a plant grow faster by pulling at it.

Therefore this idiom is useful when describing someone who tries to force something to go faster than it’s natural process.  Something take time no matter what you do, there are no short cuts and patience is needed.  If you think someone is pushing you too hard you could use this to tell that person to lay off, but only of course if there pressure or encouragement genuinely has no effect on the result.  If a teacher is telling you to do your homework or review class material etc then the idiom doesn’t apply because this idiom is only really applicable to situations where the efforts of another genuinely have no effect on the end result, and perhaps can do harm and even hamper the result.

This idiom can also be rendered as 揠苗助长 – ya4miao2zhu4zhang3 – where the only difference is the first character “ya4” which also means “pull”.  However I am told that the above version with “ba2” is more common.

Mar 04 2010

小题大做 – xiaotidazuo

小题大做 – xiao3ti2da4zuo4

Literal meaning of each character = small – problem – big – do/produce

Actually, this is basically the same as the English idiom “make a mountain out of a molehill”.  The Chinese version doesn’t use the graphic comparison like we do.  They simply say the problem is small but the doing or action is big.

Just in case you don’t know what “make a mountain out of a molehill” means (perhaps you aren’t a native English speaker) this idiom is used to describe when someone is over reacting to a problem.  The problem is very small but the person is reacting as if the problem were very big.

Jan 27 2010

因人而异 – yinreneryi

因人而异 – yin1ren2er2yi4

Literal meaning of each character = because – people – and/yet/but – different

This is a fairly self explanatory idiom when you read the meaning of each character.  It basically means “everybody is different”, “differ from person to person” or “vary with each individual”

I first came across this idiom when talking about language learning and comparing languages with a taxi driver.  I gave my opinion about Chinese being easy and French being hard and I also said that it was only my opinion and someone else may feel differently.  I also comparing my learning Chinese faster than french and so on and at some point in the conversation he said this idiom.

So I now use it when talking about language learning to say that some people learn faster than others.  It isn’t to say that anyone is a better person than anyone else, it’s just that they are “different”.   However I am pretty sure that it can be used to other situations when talking about peoples individual abilities or maybe even tastes etc.

Jan 15 2010

同床异梦 – tongchuangyimeng

同床异梦 – tong2chuang2yi4meng4

Literal meaning of each character = same – bed – different – dream

This is a very easy idiom to understand and use.  It basically describes a marriage where the husband and wife pretty much do their own thing.  Quite likely there is no romance or love left in the marriage and the staying together is likely only for convenience sakes.  The only thing they share is a bed, whereas their dreams and goals are different.

Perhaps they stay together for the sake of the children, but in any event emotionally the marriage is pretty much over and they both know it and likely everyone else knows it too.

Jan 13 2010

掩耳盗铃 – yanerdaoling

淹耳盗铃 – yan3er3dao4ling2

Literal meaning of each character – cover/shut – ear(s) – steal – bell

When I first looked this idiom up in the dictionary it was defined as “decieve oneself”.  This is of course a correct definition but when I analysed the meaning of each individual character I realised their must be a story behind this idiom about stealing a bell.  Because what do the above words have to do with deceiving oneself ?

This is something you can infer with any Chinese idiom.  Some of them have obvious meanings whereas idioms like this don’t have an obvious explanation but have a story behind them.

After doing a little bit if research I learned that there is a story about a family by the name of “Fan”.  They had a bell that a thief wanted to steal.  His method was to smash the bell (I don’t know why – what use is a smashed up bell?) so that he could carry it.  When he hit the bell it naturally made a big noise so the thief foolishly plugged up his ears thinking it would muffle the sound.  Of course when he continued to hit the bell it drew the attention of the neighbours and he was caught in the act.

Therefore this idiom describes when someone similarly, foolishly deceives themself in whatever situation.

Dec 31 2009

防微杜渐 – fangweidujian

防微杜渐 – fang2wei1du4jian4

Literal meaning of each character :

guard/prepare against/prevent – minute/tiny/slight – stop/prevent/eradicate – gradual

Luckily in English we have an equivalent idiom with a similar meaning “Nip evil in the bud”.

When analyzing the 4 characters above used in this idiom you can see the meaning easily.  You are guarding against small or minute things, stopping them from gradually becoming anything else.

This idiom can be used in any situation where you would use the English idiom “Nip evil in the bud” and therefore I don’t think it’s necessary to go into too much detail with examples of how and when to use it.

There are quite a few Chinese idioms that have equivalent Chinese meanings.  This is great for explaining how and when to use these common sayings.  However, there are also many that have absolutely no equivalent in English and therefore require extensive explanation and examples so as to understand fully the meaning and in what situations one can properly use it.

Dec 31 2009

宁缺毋滥 – ningquewulan

宁缺毋滥 – ning4que1wu2lan4

rather/prefer – do without/lack/have nothing/be short of – not – inferior/no good/excessive

This idiom essentially means “rather have nothing than something second rate” or even something like “I won’t settle for second best”.

I first came across this idiom when speaking with a Chinese man about girlfriends.  In Chinese culture there is a lot of pressure on people to get married and start a family.  This pressure normally comes from parents.  He didn’t have a girlfriend at the time we were talking and he used this idiom to explain why.

I thought this would be a very useful idiom and can be used in  many situations.  He just happened to use it by saying “I’m not gonna just marry anyone for the sake of getting married”.  He was going to wait and make sure whomever he marries one day will be compatible and of high quality.

Therefore this chengyu can be used whenever you want to express the idea that you only want the best or something of high quality.  If you would rather have nothing than something sub standard this idiom is perfect

Dec 31 2009

将心比心 – jiangxinbixin

将心比心  – jiang1xin1bi3xin1

I find this idiom very useful.  The literal meaning of the 4 characters is something like “take heart compare heart”.  The first word “jiang1” isn’t very easy to translate as it can mean many things but the last 3 characters are simple “heart compare heart”.

Basically you are asking someone to compare their heart with yours.  I have also heard people say it means to take your heart and put it in someone else’s body.

What you are basically saying is try to understand things from the other persons point of view.  In English we would say “put yourself in my shoes” or “put yourself in his shoes”.  I’m pretty sure the meanings are identical.  Whenever I want to convey the idea of “put yourself in my shoes” I use this idiom and it works.  So I am pretty sure the meanings are the same.  This is great because often times there is no equivalent in English and one would need to write perhaps a whole article on the exact meaning of a Chinese idiom/chengyu in order to explain how to use it correctly.

So now for some sentences/examples :

你与我将心比心 – ni3 yu3 wo3 jiang1xin1bi3xin1 = Put yourself in my shoes

你与他将心比心 – ni3 yu3 ta1 jiang1xin1bi3xin1 = Put yourself in his shoes

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