You might think that you should learn idioms only when you can roughly speak a language… but you’re wrong. Chinese has so many idioms and they’re so ingrained into daily life that you must know them from the very beginning.
And the good news is they’re pretty easy!
So here are a few basic Chinese idioms that are not only useful, you actually have to know for everyday conversation. Any kid over the age of 10 will know these, and so should you.
Lists of idioms tend to quickly sprawl into the hundreds (my own does). I’ll try to keep this one concise.
Note: I’m providing these idioms in simplified Chinese and in Mandarin pinyin, though they’re of course equally valid in Cantonese, though might be less common.
See also: Chinese Idioms that Teach You about China. These are more complicated — but elegant — idioms that are rich with Chinese history and culture. And still used often 😉
“Long time no see!”
- Idiom: 好久不见！ (hǎo jiǔ bú jiàn)
Most Chinese students learn it within a week of starting to learn Chinese. I just love that it was translated directly to English without the grammar even being modified.
There’s one more common literally translated idiom like this… read on to see.
“Give up halfway”
- Idiom on its own: 半途而废 (bàntú’érfèi)
- Example sentence: 不要半途而废！(bú yào bàntú’érfèi!)
This is a classic Chinese idiom that you can use in a bunch of different situations. Working your way down a list of idioms? Keep going, don’t give up halfway!
- Idiom on its own: 不可思议 (bùkěsīyì)
- Example sentence: 这是一个真不可思议的事儿！(zhè shì yīgè zhēn bùkěsīyì de shìer!)
You say something is 不可思议 pretty casually, like if it was something out of the ordinary, like a 50% discount at the Apple store. Something like “Wow, that’s crazy!”
“A total mess”
- Idiom on its own: 乱七八糟 (luànqībāzāo)
- Example sentence: 我的房间乱七八糟。(wǒ de fángjiān luànqībāzāo)
I’ve seen this translated at “at sixes and sevens” but never heard this expression used in English. Kind of like how I’ve almost never heard people say it’s raining cats and dogs. You can say other things are 乱七八糟 like my office desk, for example.
“When in Rome…”
- Idiom: 入乡随俗 (rù xiāng suí sú)
- Literal meaning: “Follow the customs of any village you enter.”
In a foreign environment you find yourself thinking this all the time. You’re doing, eating and saying unusual things. “You want to have jianbing for lunch?” “Hey, you know what they say… 入乡随俗!”
“Don’t air your dirty laundry in public”
- Idiom: 家丑不可外扬 (jiāchǒu bùkě wàiyáng)
You use this expression just like you do in English, describing why you probably shouldn’t be having an argument in public, for example, about how expensive the hot pot here is and how we’re constantly spending too much money.
“The first step is always the hardest”
- Idiom: 万事开头难 (wàn shì kāi tóu nán)
This is a great expression to use whenever starting something new, which you’ll be doing constantly in China. You might be watching your first movie in Chinese, or starting a difficult hike along the Great Wall or trying your hand at calligraphy.
“Learning is a life-long pursuit”
- Idiom: 活到老，学到老。
- Literal meaning: Live until you’re old; learn until you’re old.
This one is so useful whenever anyone compliments you on your Chinese, which should be common (… hopefully). “It’s so great you’re learning Chinese.” “Well you know, learning is a life-long pursuit…”
Just a note that this idiom has a positive connotation. It isn’t used like “live and learn” in English, which has a negative one, after learning a lesson you wish you didn’t have to learn.
“Just waiting for that one crucial thing…”
- Idiom: 万事俱备，只欠东风 (wàn shì jù bèi, zhǐ qiàn dōng fēng)
- Literal meaning: Everything’s ready; all that’s missing is the east wind.
I don’t know of a literal translation for this, but it’s used when everything’s ready except for one crucial thing. Like you have the money to make a rental deposit on a new apartment, you’re just waiting for the paperwork come through.
Sounds poetic, and it is, but this is pretty common.
The origin of the story is from the Three Kingdoms period (220-280), when two emperors were readying for an attack. Their ships were in the west, and all they needed was an east wind to blow the ships in the right direction.
“Speak of the devil (and he doth come)”
- Idiom: 说曹操曹操就到 (shuō cáocāo cáocāo jiù dào)
- Literal meaning: “Mention Cao Cao, and Cao Cao arrives.”
This is used in exactly the same way as in English. Like other expressions, it comes originally from the Chinese classic “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, referring to a story where someone was looking for Cao Cao (one of the principal characters) in the woods, only for him to appear before anyone called for him.
“Different to the crowd” or “stand out from the masses”
- Idiom on its own: 与众不同 (yǔ zhòng bù tóng)
- Literal meaning: Different to the crowd
- Example sentence 他有一点与众不同。(tā yǒu yīdiǎn yǔ zhòng bù tóng)
This idiom is usually positive. You use it to describe when you’re trying something a little different, or to justify when someone’s behaving a little differently. It can apply to entrepreneurs or geniuses… anyone who doesn’t follow the same path as others.
“Throwing fuel on the fire”
- Idiom on its own: 火上加油 (huǒ shàng jiā yóu)
- Example sentence: 你问题真是火上加油！(nǐ wèntí zhēn shì huǒshàngjiāyóu)
This translates literally and is used in the same way, for example, when criticising someone for asking a difficult question about a sensitive subject.
“You’re preaching to deaf ears…” or “casting pearls before swine”
- Simplified Chinese: 对牛弹琴 (duì niú tán qín)
- Literal meaning: Playing piano for cows
- Example sentence: 告诉我一个素食餐厅很好相当于对牛弹琴。(gàosù wǒ yīgè sùshí cāntīng hěn hǎo xiāngdāngyú duìniútánqín)
Used the same as the English equivalent expressions. You can use this any time someone is trying, in vain, to teach someone else (or you) something of significance importance to them that the listener doesn’t really care about. Like trying to tell me about how great some vegan restaurant is. Interesting, but you’re preaching to deaf ears.
“There’s always a few bad apples”
- Idiom on its own: 鱼龙混杂 (yú lóng hùn zá)
- Literal meaning: Fish and dragons mixed together
You use this expression on its own to give caution about a situation where people might be easily deceived. Like someone might be going to a market, or applying for jobs with various companies. In this idiom, the fish are good and the dragons are bad, something slightly confusing to me because dragons are generally good. (I asked a few people about this and they just shrugged.)
“This place is packed!”
- Idiom on its own: 人山人海 (rén shān rén hǎi)
- Literal meaning: People mountain, people sea
Saving one of my favourites for last. This Chinese idiom is so well known that Hong Kongers sometimes just use the English literal translation, just as English speakers the world over do for “long time no see”, saying “Wow, it was so packed last night… people mountain, people sea.”