Chinese Idioms And The Stories Behind Them

By Natasha Cohen17/05/2022 Chinese Language, Learn Chinese

When do three men make a tiger? When they’re part of a Chinese idiom.

Chinese idioms are often known as 成语 ‘chéngyǔ’, and are usually made up of four characters. They can either be a non-literal figurative phrase (a metaphorical figure of speech), or a figurative phrase that also keeps its literal meaning (a double meaning).

Here are some non-literal figurative phrases:

一毛不拔 yì máo bù bá – ‘won’t pull a strand of hair’: to be stingy (to the point of not being willing to part with a single strand of body hair).

九牛一毛 jiǔ niú yì máo – ‘nine cows and one strand of cow hair’: something tiny amongst something vastly numerous.

抛砖引玉 pāo zhuān yǐn yù – ‘throw a brick to attract jade’: to inspire others to add their own valuable input by putting forward your own humble idea first.

And here are some idioms with both literal and figurative meanings:

爱屋及乌 ài wū jí wū – ‘love for one’s house reaches the crows on the roof’: to love someone or something so much that you also love everything that relates to them/it.

良药苦口 liáng yào kǔ kǒu – ‘good medicine tastes bitter’: the best pieces of advice are often the ones that are the most difficult to accept.

价值连城 jià zhí lián chéng – ‘as valuable as a whole city’: to be priceless.

The story behind some Chinese Idioms

Most chéngyǔ have a story behind them, whether from a historical event or an old legend. Here are three with their stories, along with their ultimate meaning.

鸡毛蒜皮 jī máo suàn pí – ‘chicken feather and garlic skin’

In this old legend, one man sold garlic and his neighbour sold chickens. The two neighbours would prepare their goods each morning, but the garlic skin would blow onto one man’s property, while chicken feathers would end up all over the other’s. The neighbours argued until they decided to take the matter to court. The judge was so frustrated at having his time wasted over such a petty problem that he punished both of them.

So now if someone’s quibbling over ‘鸡毛蒜皮’, it means they’re making a fuss over trivial and insignificant things.

三人成虎 sān rén chéng hǔ – ‘three men make a tiger’

It’s thought that this saying comes from the Warring States period, when one of King of Wei’s trusted officials, Pang Cong, warned him of paying too much attention to rumours.

Pang Song asked the king if he’d believe one person who claimed to have seen a tiger walking around a crowded city market. The king said he wouldn’t. Two people? He’d start to wonder if it were true after all. Three people? He’d believe it. Pang Cong tried to explain that even though three people would have made the claim, the idea of a tiger casually roaming around a market full of people was still absurd. Unfortunately for Pang Cong, the king didn’t seem to read between the lines of his allegory – as soon as the official left on business, three of his rivals slandered him and the king stopped talking to him.

As a result, ‘三人成虎’ means when something ridiculous ends up being accepted as truth when repeated by enough people.

井底之蛙 jǐng dǐ zhī wā – ‘a frog in a well’

This saying comes from a fable by the philosopher Zhuangzi. In the story, a turtle passes by a nearly dried-up well and sees a frog in there. The frog proudly tells the turtle about his ‘paradise’ in the well, and invites the turtle down to visit – but the turtle is too big to join him. The turtle then suggests the frog joins him to visit the sea, and tells the astonished frog about its vastness.

So now if you refer to someone as ‘井底之蛙’,  you’re describing them as complacent or narrow-minded, and therefore ignorant of the world around them.

Want to learn more idioms? Follow us on Instagram, where we post regularly. You can also check out Lingoinn’s homestay programmes, where you can stay with professional language teachers in China.

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