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Using idioms is a great way to feign fluency in a language. Many of them display masterful use of poetic metaphor, and are just badass. Example: 斬草除根. To eradicate; destroy completely. Literal translation: to slash the grass and remove the roots.

Most of the following Chinese phrases are in the form of fixed four-character idioms. The phrases with a length less than four characters are deemed "idiomatic expressions." Note that some of the literal translations might not make total sense, just like English idioms ("piece of cake"). The idioms that have question marks in their translations are ones I don't understand; e-mail me at wwu @ ocf.berkeley.edu if you can help.

- W.Wu, 3/18/2002 12:55AM


If you are unable to view the Chinese characters in the left column properly through your browser (e.g., you just see stuff like @#!*$`&6f%), then you need to download a Chinese language pack from one of the sites below.

Characters Pinyin English
四字成語 si4 zi4 cheng2yu3 Four-character set idiom.
Literal: (same)
無大無小 wu2da4 wu2xiao3 Regardless of size or seniority; all treated equal.
Literal: regardless if big, regardless if small.
玉手 yu4 shou3 A very white, beautiful hand.
Literal: jade hand.
天書 tian1 shu1 Illegible writing.
Literal: book from outer space ^_^
入木三分 ru4 mu4 san1 fen1 To be written in a forceful hand, to be profound.
Literal: enter the wood with a depth of three inches.
說一不二 shuo1 yi1 bu2 er4 To mean what you say.
Literal: say one not two. (Say one thing, not two different things.)
黑白不分 hei1 bai2 bu4 fen1 Cannot differentiate between right and wrong.
Literal: black and white, can't differentiate.
佔 便宜 zhan4 pian2yi Get an unfair advantage.
Literal: seize cheaply.
夠朋友 gou4 peng2you3 A true friend.
Literal: [satiating / enough] friend.
心理有鬼 xin1li3 you3 gui3 To have a guilty conscience.
Literal: thoughts of the mind have ghosts.
鬼點子 gui3dian3zi Dirty trick, evil plan.
Literal: ghost idea.
巴不得 ba1bude To be very eager about something.
Literal: to stick to + bude (an idiomatic sound)
黑白分明 hei1 bai2 fen1ming2 To be in sharp contrast.
Literal: black and white clearly marked.
大吃大喝 da4 chi1 da4 he1 To eat a lot; "pig out".
Literal: eat big drink big.
謝天謝地 xie4 tian1 xie4 di4 Thank Heaven.
Literal: thank heaven thank earth.
別有天地 bie2 you3 tian1 di4 There's something out there that's better than I thought.
Literal: another have heavenly earth
別有用心 bie2 you3 yong4xin1 To have ulterior motives, to "have an axe to grind".
Literal: different have motive ?
說來說去 shuo1 lai2 shuo1 qu4 To say over and over and over again.
Literal: say come say go. (Talk comes and goes?)
開夜車 kai1ye4che1 To work late into the night.
Literal: to drive the night train.
哭笑不得 ku1-xiao4 bu de2 To not know whether to laugh or cry.
Literal: crying and laughing not allowed.
左思右想 zuo3 si1 you4 xiang3 To keep on thinking about something.
Literal: (same)
遠近聞名 yuan2jin4 wen2ming2 To be very famous all over the place.
Literal: far and near have heard your name.
不要臉 bu2yao4 lian3 To be shameless, have no conscience.
Literal: don't want face.
胡作非為 hu2 zuo4 fei1 wei2 To act barbarously, committing many outrages.
Literal: foolish actions with false purpose.
一絲不差 yi4 si1 bu2 cha4 No difference.
Literal: a tiny bit doesn't make a difference.
一清二楚 yi4 qing1 er4 chu3 Crystal clear.
Literal: very distinctly clear.
安全第一 an1quan2 di4yi1 Safety first.
Literal: (same)
賤骨頭 jian4gu2tou Low-life, rat.
Literal: cheap bone head.
厚臉皮 hou4lian3pi2 Insolent.
Literal: thick skin on the face.
華而不實 hua2 er2 bu4 shi2 To make a big show but produce nothing; all talk.
Literal: flowers that bloom but produce no fruit.
鹿死誰手 lu4 si3 shei2 shou3 Who'll win?
Literal: the deer will die by whose hand?
不惜工本 bu4xi1 gong1ben3 Go for it with everything you've got.
Literal: don't spare labor or capital.
花花公子 hua1hua1 gong1zi3 A dandy playboy.
Literal: vanity pampered son of a feudal prince.
手無寸鐵 shou3 wu2 cun4 tie3 Completely defenceless.
Literal: hands lacking even small iron.
要知己知彼 yao4 zhi1 ji3 zhi1 bi3 You should know yourself and know your enemy.
Literal: Same.
答非所問 da2 fei1 suo3 wen4 To give an irrelevant or evasive answer.
Literal: your answer is not related (wrong) to what i asked (@bOU = what i asked)
忽而哭忽而笑 hu1 er2 ku1 hu1 er2 xiao4 To cry one minute and then laugh the next.
Literal: (same)
殺人不見血 sha1ren2 bu4 jian4 xie3 To kill in a subtle way, by invisible means.
Literal: kill a person with no blood seen.
與世無爭 yu3 shi4 wu2 zheng1 To get out of the rat race.
Literal: get along with the world without disputes.
斬草除根 zhan3cao3 chu2gen1 To eradicate; completely destroy.
Literal: slash the grass and remove the roots.
情場殺手 qing2chang3 sha1shou3 A killer in the field of emotions; lady-killer.
Literal: emotions field killer (kill + hand = killer)
青山綠水 qing1shan1 lu4shui3 Beautiful scenery.
Literal: dark green hills and green waters.
殺雞給猴看 sha1 ji1 gei3 hou2 kan4 To punish someone as an example to frighten others (scare tactics).
Literal: kill a chicken and show it to a monkey
隻言片語 zhi1yan2 pian4yu3 A word or two.
Literal: fragment speech fragment speech
王八蛋 wang2ba1dan4 Bastard.
Literal: turtle eggs (a common cuss phrase). In Chinese culture, turtles are praised for their longevity and gentleness, but despised for their cowardice (a turtle will retract its head into its shell at the slightest danger). A famous Yuan dynasty song mocks an emperor's son by comparing his cowardice to that of a turtle.
孰是孰非 shu2 shi4 shu2 fei1 Which is right? Which is wrong?
Literal: (same)
鳥語花香 niao3yu3 hua1xiang1 "The birds chatter and the flowers smell sweet"
Literal: (same, used to describe spring)
百花齊放 bai3 hua1 qi2 fang4 Let everything grow brilliantly.
Literal: let a hundred flowers bloom.
丟三落四 diu1 san1 la4 si4 Absent-minded, scatter-brained.
Literal: to lose three things and leave behind four.
無法無天 wu2 fa3 wu2 tian1 Absolutely merciless.
Literal: no laws, no sky (no gods).
井底之蛙 jing3 di3 zhi1 wa1 Describing someone with very little knowledge, ignorant.
Literal: a frog at the bottom of a well, who thus has tunnel vision :)
一日千里 yi1 ri4 qian1 li3 To make progress at a lightning-fast pace.
Literal: a thousand miles in one day.
一心一意 yi1 xin1 yi1 yi4 To devote oneself completely to a particular cause.
Literal: one heart, one intention.
自作聰明 zi4 zuo4 cong1 ming2 To incorrectly consider oneself as being very intelligent.
Literal: regard self as very smart.
死裡逃生 si3 li3 tao2 sheng1 To escape from grave danger.
Literal: Inside death, but still escaped.
一鳴驚人 yi1 ming2 jing1 ren2 To amaze the world with a single brilliant feat.
Literal: one cry, astonishing.
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