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.
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
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
This is perhaps my most loved portion of Chinese language. Every language has it’s unique proverbs, sayings and idioms, however Chinese is especially well known for it’s sayings.
Idioms (called “cheng4yu3” in Chinese) are generally 4 characters in length. These short sayings pack quite a punch in meaning. When used correctly they can highly impress your listener. When I correctly use Chinese idioms people sing my praises like nobodys business. They think I am an expert in Chinese when really I am just average. By using chengyus correctly you can actually trick people into thinking that your Chinese is better than it actually is. This is because they don’t expect early learners to be able to use such high level Chinese. So I highly recommend learning and using chengyus anytime you get the chance. Not that I try to trick people into thinking my Chinese is better than it actually is, it’s just that these chengyus are incredibly useful. In fact, there are situations in English where I want to get my point across about something and the Chinese chengyu is perfect, however I must spend a few sentences in English explaining something that could be summed up in just 4 Chinese words.
Proverbs are slightly different but essentially the same thing. They tend to be longer than chengyus but still pack the equivalent punch. Again if you can use them correctly your Chinese friends will be well impressed. Proverbs might be sayings of people like Confucious (Kongzi) or Laozi, ancient Chinese philosiphers who wrote books that still have influence on the culture of Chinese people.
The meaning of Proverbs tend to be a bit more obvious than that of Chengyus. This is because the Chengyus are very short and use only parts of words whereas Proverbs tend to be complete sentences and phrases.
I have a section devoted entirely to Chinese Idioms and one for Chinese Proverbs that I know and encounter while living here. There’s no point in learning idioms that are rarely used, so focus on the most frequently used ones. I will post all the sayings I use on a regular basis and continue to post new ones as I encounter and learn them myself in my day to day life here.