Chinese idioms, or chéng yǔ (成语), are mostly made up of just four characters. They are derived from Classical Chinese literature, myths, and historical events, and used in speech and writing as a type of cultural shorthand for certain descriptions or moral concepts. Skip to our list of translated idioms here.

When X and O were in school, it was common to see students trying to memorise Chinese idioms before an exam so they could come off as well-read. But shoehorning idioms into essays doesn’t make you a master of the language. In these situations, they sound like clichés or stale metaphors,  especially when one does not have a good foundation in the language.

Case in point: in the popular Chinese period drama My Fair Princess (还珠格格), the street-rat-turned-princess Little Swallow (小燕子) is told to memorise thousands of idioms so she can become as cultured as the other palace royals. Little Swallow – who struggles to read basic Chinese, much less pepper her speech with idioms – ends up mis-reading and misinterpreting them, to comic effect. She does not get very far in her anthology of idioms, known as a 成语大全, or chéng yǔ dà quán.

When used well, however, idioms can add flavour to one’s writing and speech and make it more concise.

Our list of idioms

井底之蛙 (Jing di zhi wa; A frog in the well)

This compilation of idioms is an ongoing project that we started because we could not find many English explanations of Chinese idioms online. Send us an email if you have any feedback or requests.

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