If you’re learning Chinese, your goal might be to sound like a native Mandarin speaker. That’s a great goal, and I support you!
But I also know how difficult it is to sound like a native speaker – I also learned Chinese from scratch, after all.
So, to help you along on those days when it feels impossible to sound smart (let alone fluent) in Mandarin, here are some Chinese idioms, sayings, and phrases to make you sound smarter.
If Chinese idioms are a bit beyond your reach right now, you might want to read up on how to learn some basic Chinese first.
Favorite this article though, because once you have a solid foundation, you can integrate all these awesome Mandarin sayings into your Chinese vocabulary!
- Pinyin: Yuánmùqiúyú
- English: Barking up the wrong tree
I love this Chinese idiom, or chengyu (成语 chéngyǔ).
It literally means “to climb a tree looking for a fish”. It’s similar to the English phrase “barking up the wrong tree”.
This saying is used to express that the approach or method at hand is incorrect or won’t end in the desired result.
Example: 不努力却想发财,无异是缘木求鱼! If you don’t work hard but expect riches, you’re undoubtedly 缘木求鱼.
- Pinyin: Xūyǔwēishé
- English: To feign civility
This Chinese idiom refers to fake displays of emotion and social interactions where someone is just going through the motions.
This idiom originates from the Zhuangzi (庄子), an ancient Chinese text. So, you’ll certainly impress native Chinese speakers with your fluency if you drop this saying in conversation.
Example: 为了工作的需要,他只好与这些讨厌的人虚与委蛇一番。For the sake of his work, he had to 虚与委蛇with these bothersome people.
Confused by chengyu? Then learn Mandarin with a school such as Culture Yard, an online Chinese language school.
- Pinyin: Ěrtímiànmìng
- English: To give advice sincerely and earnestly
This Chinese idiom means that not only do you tell someone something, but you also grasp their ears to hold their head still while you are speaking.
You’ll certainly catch people’s attention (without grasping their ears) with your Chinese skills if you use this idiom!
Example: 老师们的耳提面命,她竟当成耳边风,一点也不在意。She didn’t care at all that her teachers were 耳提面命, it all went in one ear and out the other.
- Pinyin: Gāoshān yǎng zhǐ, jǐng háng xíng zhǐ
- English: Having a lofty character
This Chinese saying, meaning “to look up to a tall mountain and to behave like one”, is used to praise someone you admire greatly.
Metaphorically, it means that someone’s character or talent is like a tall mountain that people look up to and cannot help but emulate their behavior.
“高山” (tall mountain) is a metaphor for noble virtue. “景行” is a metaphor for exemplary behavior that is above reproach.
As a whole, this phrase is often used in the sense of “having a lofty character”.
Example: 我现在只想跟在他的左右，观察他的一言一行，高山仰止，景行行止。Now I just want to follow him wherever he goes, observing his every word and deed, 高山仰止，景行行止.
- Pinyin: Chéng mén shīhuǒ, yāngjíchíyú
- English: Fire at the city gate brings disaster for fish in the moat
This native-level Chinese idiom refers to innocent people who suffer from events out of their control.
You can say this to a friend going through a hard time due to factors outside their control, or to complain about something you’re going through personally.
Example: 他们经常吵架,闹得我们四邻不安,真是城门失火,殃及池鱼。They often argue and make all the neighbors uncomfortable. It’s truly a case of 城门失火,殃及池鱼.
- Pinyin: Fánshì yù zé lì, bù yù zé fèi
- English: He who fails to prepare, prepares to fail
As a serial over-preparer myself, this Chinese saying resonates deeply with me.
I will always tout the benefits of preparing in advance for literally everything, and now I can do it in Chinese too.
This gem comes from the Book of Rites, a core part of Confucianism. You’ll definitely sound fluent in Chinese if you quote Confucius himself, so be prepared to blow your friends away!
Example: 凡事预则立,不预则废,我们干任何事都得事先有个准备。As they say, 凡事预则立,不预则废. Whatever we do, we must prepare in advance.
- Pinyin: Dédào duō zhù, shīdào guǎ zhù
- English: Justice finds great support, and injustice finds little support
This Chinese idiom is a mouthful, but a good one.
It’s originally from Mencius and describes how one’s character impacts their public image.
If you stand for justice, you will inevitably win the support of the people. And if you align yourself with injustice or immorality, people will view you negatively and withdraw their support.
By using this idiom, not only will you sound super fluent in Chinese, but people will also recognize your virtuousness – a highly-valued trait in Chinese culture!
Example: 老张是个大公无私的人,得道多助,失道寡助,大家都支持他当厂长。Old Zhang is a selfless person; 得道多助,失道寡助, so we all support him becoming plant manager.
- Pinyin: Wén dào yǒu xiānhòu, shù yè yǒu zhuāngōng
- English: Little strokes fell great oaks
Like many Chinese sayings, this one doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English. It literally means “knowledge is sequential and learning is specialized”.
It’s somewhat similar to the English idioms “little strokes fell great oaks” and “Rome wasn’t built in a day” in relation to one’s knowledge.
You might not have all the knowledge or skills of your neighbor, but you will gain these with time. Just keep at it, and little by little you’ll get there.
Next time you’re trying to sound both compassionate and smart in Chinese, this is a great Chinese idiom to use.
Example: 你也不必觉得技不如人，所谓闻道有先后，术业有专攻。You don’t have to feel less skilled than others, as the saying goes, 闻道有先后，术业有专攻.
- Pinyin: Jiàn xián sī qí
- English: See someone virtuous and think on their level
We have Confucius and The Analects (论语) to thank for this advanced Chinese idiom.
In true Confucian form, this idiom exhorts us to admire moral and talented people, and to learn from their example.
If you’re curious about what other traits are valued in Chinese culture, learn more about what Chinese people are like.
Example: 生活中，只有做到见贤思齐，才能不断地完善自己。In life, the only way to constantly improve yourself is to 见贤思齐.
- Pinyin: Shàozhuàng bù nǔlì, lǎodà tú shāng bēi
- English: If you don’t work hard when you’re young, you’ll regret it when you’re older
This Chinese idiom is literally “If you don’t exert yourself in the prime of your youth, you will struggle in vain in your old age”. And it’s one of my favorites.
If you’re familiar with Aesop’s fables, this idiom might remind you of the story of The Ant and the Grasshopper. The moral of the fable is to use your time well by working hard in preparation for the future.
This saying conveys largely the same meaning: if you don’t work hard when you’re young, you’ll regret it when you get older.
It’s mostly used to encourage young people to make an effort to study while they can.
Example: “少壮不努力，老大徒伤悲”， 我们都要抓住年轻时的黄金时光好好学习，不要等到老了以后才后悔。As they say, “少壮不努力，老大徒伤悲”; we must take advantage of these precious moments of youth to study, otherwise we’ll regret it in our old age.
- Pinyin: Tiāndào chóu qín
- English: Heaven helps those who help themselves
Fate, the heavens, the universe, or whatever you wish to call it will reward those who work hard and in a fair manner.
This idiom means that as long as you work hard, you’ll reap a reward.
Example: 你只管努力，不要顾虑太多，”天道酬勤“，总有一天你的努力会得到回报。As long as you work hard, don’t worry too much. As they say, ”天道酬勤“; your hard work will always pay off in the end!
Feeling clever with these Chinese idioms?
So, there you have it – a large repertoire of Chinese idioms, sayings, and proverbs to make you sound smarter in Mandarin!
If you want to learn more, there are plenty of other great Chinese idioms out there.
There’s a saying for almost every occasion, so now you have no excuse to not use one in conversation.
Planning on practicing your chengyu in China soon? Then make sure you read up on what to bring to China. I think you’ll benefit from it!
This is a guest post courtesy of Culture Yard. Main image credit: Dean Drobot on Shutterstock.