Essential Chinese Idioms for Conversation

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Practical Chinese (Mandarin) idioms that people actually use, all the time

Incredibly useful Chinese idioms to learn. Photo by Manuel Joseph.

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.


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Summary Table – All the Chinese Idioms

More detail below. But here’s your summary!

English中文pīnyīn
Long time no see好久不见hǎo jiǔ bú jiàn
To give up halfway半途而废bàn tú ér fèi
Unimaginable不可思议bù kě sī yì
Messy, shambolic乱七八糟luàn qī bā zāo
When in Rome, do as the Romans do (lit: when entering a village)入乡随俗rù xiāng suí sú
Don’t air your dirty laundry in public家丑不可外扬jiāchǒu bùkě wàiyáng
The first step is always the hardest万事起头难wàn shì qǐ tóu nán
Learning is a lifelong pursuit活到老,学到老huó dào lǎo, xué dào lǎo
Everything is ready — just waiting for the wind…万事俱备,只欠东风wàn shì jù bèi, zhǐ qiàn dōng fēng
Speak of the devil (lit: General Caocao) and he doth come说曹操曹操就到shuō cáocāo cáocāo jiù dào
Different from the crowd与众不同yǔ zhòng bù tóng
To add fuel to the fire火上加油huǒ shàng jiā yóu
To cast pearls before swine (lit: to play piano for cows)对牛弹琴duì niú tán qín
Good mixed in with the bad (lit: dragons and fish mixed together)鱼龙混杂yú lóng hùn zá
Very crowded (lit: people mountain, people see)人山人海rén shān rén hǎi

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 this idiom 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 (bàn tú ér fèi)
  • 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!

“Totally inconceivable”

  • 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!)

In Chinese 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/Shambolic”

  • 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 Chinese idiom translated at “at sixes and sevens” but never heard this expression used in English. 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 “when in rome…” 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 Chinese saying 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: 万事起头难 (wàn shì qǐ tóu nán)

This is a great Chinese saying 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。(huó dào lǎo, xué dào lǎo)
  • Literal meaning: Live until you’re old; learn until you’re old.

This Chinese aphorism 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 Chinese saying 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 Chinese 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 Chinese idiom 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)

This Chinese idiom is used the same as the English equivalents. 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.

“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 Chinese 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.

“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 favourite Chinese idioms 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.”

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