没吃葡萄说葡萄酸 – mei2 chi1 pu2tao shuo1 pu2tao suan1
Literal translation – haven’t eaten grapes say grapes sour
Believe that grapes are sour even though you have never eaten a grape.
This is a fairly easy proverb to understand and use. It’s means you have an opinion or judgement about something you have never investigated or know very little about i.e. your opinion has no foundation and you have no right to be passing a judgement on a certain topic or thing. Just like someone who says grapes are sour even though they have never eaten one.
I find this a very useful proverb in China as I often encounter people who’s opinions are just heresay. For example, when people find out that I come from Canada the usual conversation that follows is something along the line of how rich and wonderful Canada is. I like to make sure that Chinese people know that Canada has poor people too, the streets AREN’T paved with gold despite what they may think or hear. One time I told someone that Canada had homeless people and the local refused to believe me. He went on to tell ME what Canada was like even though he had never been there. So the proverb above would have been useful had I known it at that time.
There is another proverb almost the same as the proverb above but with a slightly different meaning :
吃不到葡萄说葡萄酸 – chi1 bu2dao4 pu2tao shuo1 pu2tao suan1
Literal translation – eat not arrive grape say grape sour
Say/believe grapes are sour if you are unable to eat them (in order to falsely comfort oneself)
This proverb or saying is almost the same as the first but the meaning is quite different. It’s common for us as humans to envy what we don’t have or can’t afford. So we often pretend we don’t want the thing we can’t have or afford in an effort to comfort ourselves, but we know what mind games we are trying to play on ourselves and so do the people who hear us try to do so. That’s basically what this expression is meaning. A nice new BMW car drives by and someone says “Wow what a nice car” and you say “Ah BMWs aren’t that great anyway”. You don’t actually believe what you are saying but you say it anyways.
萝卜白菜各有所爱 – luo2bo bai2cai4ge4you3suo3ai4
Literal translation – Turnip Chinese Cabbage each has actual love
Turnip, Cabbage everyone has their own preference
It basically means It means “Everybody has their own personal taste” or “Each persons likes and dislikes are different”
This is one of my MOST used expresssions. If you live in China then this is a MUST learn. Reason being I was sick and tired of going into restaurants and asking for dishes to be modified to the way I like them (i.e. don’t put any hot peppers in, as I don’t like spicey food). Too many times the waitress told me it was “impossible”. When I asked why was it “impossible” the answer was always “because it won’t taste good that way”. I have no idea where this logic possibly comes from and how it can be so common nationwide, but it is. So I was SO happy to stumble upon this idiom/phrase which basically throws a spanner in their logic using their own language. Now I don’t need to argue with the waitresses or explain to them that I have the right to decide what does and doesn’t taste good. Once I get any resistance from the staff regarding my desires to change the dishes to my liking I simply utter the proverb/saying above and they normally smile (surprised a foreigner knows how to use such an expression) and they get the point. Strange that such an expression exists in their language but yet they insists on telling others what does and doesn’t taste good.
Anyways, be sure to learn this as you will use it almost daily (or at least almost everytime you go to a restaurant).
关公面前耍大刀 – guan1gong1 mian4qian2 shua1 da4dao1
Literal translation – Guangong (name of famous warlord) in front of play sword
Play with a sword in the presence of Guangong
This basically means to attempt to show ones limited skills in the presence of someone who is highly skilled.
Guangong (also known as Guanyu) was a noted excellent swordsman. No one dared challenge him to a sword fight, sort of like a Billy the Kid of Chinese history. So of course if someone was attempting to show their swordsmanship in front of Guanyu it would be embarassing, really, as he would be no match for Guanyu.
I especially like the idioms that encompass a little bit of Chinese culture or history like this one. Any idiom involving Guanyu, Zhugeliang and such figures are all the much more intriguing and interesting in my opinion.
The modern day usage of this proverb I think is pretty obvious. If anyone is trying to flaunt their skills in the presence of someone who’s skills surpass the “flaunter” then this proverb applies.
There are 2 sides to its usage I think. One usage is if perhaps you want to express your humility. If someone is more skilled than you in something but you still carry out the task for whatever reason you can say that you are 关公面前耍大刀 – guan1gong1 mian4qian2 shua1 da4dao1. If you say this in this situation you are guaranteed to get a smile or laugh from your chinese friend. Because you are essentially admitting that they are much better than you at this skill (whatever it may be). So it’s a way to give them a compliment or give them some “face”. Further, a foreigner using an expression like this which is close to their hearts is guaranteed to have an excellent reception.
In a negative way this could also be used to sort of put someone in their place i.e. someone who thinks a little bit too much of themselves because they are limitedly skilled in some area. If someone is in their presence whom is much better then this proverb could be used to humble them or to let them realise they should step aside and let the pro take over.
Another idiom that basically carries the same meaning is 班门弄斧 – ban1men2nong4fu3. The meaning is basically the same, but I much prefer using 关公面前耍大刀 – guan1gong1 mian4qian2 shua1 da4dao1 because of the visual image and the cultural content.
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.
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.
身在曹营心在汉 – shen1 zai4 cao2 ying2 xin1 zai4 han4
Literal translation = body – at – Cao (name) – camp – heart – at – Han (name)
Idiomatic translation = Your body is in the camp of Cao but your heart is in Han’s camp.
This is a very nice Ancient Chinese Proverb. If you can use it correctly it will really touch the hearts of Chinese people and they will be highly impressed with your Chinese.
Cao was a famous war general and appears in the famous book The Three Kingdoms. I haven’t read the book myself but I know the other famous general in there is Zhu Ge Liang and I assume there is one named “Han” as well.
I am not sure if there is a specific story about a certain soldier whom this idiom applies to or not, but it basically comes the history of Caocao and his wars at the time of the The 3 Kindgoms.
The usage and meaning of this is quite specific. I used to think it just meant someone who is there in body but not in spirit (perhaps day dreaming) but the real meaning is about where someone’s loyalty lies.
For example, a company is bought out by a bigger company and maybe fires the managers and a new manager comes in. You still have the same job but now you have a new boss, however you still love the old boss and have devotion to him or her. So although your body is working for the new company and new management, you miss the old company and management and still have loyalty to them even begrudgingly continuing your job.
Therefore, there aren’t many opportunities to use this idiom as it’s meaning is quite specific.
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.
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.
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.
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