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Chinese Idioms (成语)

A person's hand writing Chinese calligraphy on a large sheet of paper.
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成语 (chéngyǔ) are Chinese set expressions, typically consisting of four characters. They often allude to a story or historical proverb.

Here is a list of chéngyǔ I’ve come across while translating Why Harem Intrigue and Held in the Lonely Castle along with their meanings in English. I also include some well-known phrases. My Chinese skill is not very high so I’m afraid I can’t explain the stories behind them. I will link any background information I come across.

I plan on adding to this page periodically as a way to review the chéngyǔ flashcards that I’ve saved that I’ve come across while translating (i.e. have made TL Notes about them). Please check back from time to time if you’d like to learn together! 🙂

For more on Chinese words and idioms, also check out the blog NihaoCafe!


千篇一律 | qiānpiān yīlǜ
Literally: A thousand articles, the same rule
Meaning: Stereotyped; Following the same pattern

额手称庆 | éshǒu chēnpqìng
Literally: Raising one’s hand to one’s forehead in joy
Meaning: To be overjoyed

特立独行 | tèlì dúxíng
Literally: Unconventional, independent action
Meaning: to be independent in mind and action

抑扬顿挫 | yìyáng dùncuò
Literally: To modulate one’s tone and pause and transition in rhythm or melody
Meaning: Cadence, modulation in tone

敷衍了事 | fūyǎn liǎoshì
Literally: Perfunctorily completing work
Meaning: To work half-heartedly, to skimp

蠢蠢欲动 | chǔnchǔn yùdòng
Literally: Restlessly moving as one wishes
Meaning: To begin to stir, to become restless, to be ready to make trouble

根深蒂固 | gēnshēn dìgù
Literally: As deep as a root, as firm as the stem of a fruit
Meaning: Deep-rooted, ingrained

众矢之的 | zhòngshǐzhīdì
Literally: To be the target for the crowd’s arrows/feces
Meaning: To be attacked on all sides, to be the target of public criticism, censured by all

群起而攻之 | qúnqǐ ér gōng zhī
Literally: The group rises against sth/sb
Meaning: To have the masses rise (or turn against) against sth/sb, universally abhorrent

皆大欢喜 | jiēdà huānxǐ
Literally: Everyone is pleased
Meaning: To everyone’s delight and satisfaction

异军突起 | yìjūn tūqǐ
Literally: An unusual army charges forward
Meaning: To emerge as a new force to be reckoned with

轰轰烈烈 | hōnghōng lièliè
Literally: To violently explode
Meaning: On a grand and spectacular scale; vigorous and dynamic

戴绿帽子 | dài lǜ màozi
Literally: Wearing a green hat
Meaning: One’s partner is having an affair
Background: Supposedly in the Ming and Yuan dynasties, men whose female relatives were prostitutes would have to wear green head coverings

打草惊蛇 | dǎchǎojīngshé
Literally: To beat the grass and startle the snake
Meaning: To act rashly and alert an enemy

兄友弟恭 | xiōngyóu dìgōng
Literally: The elder brother is a friend to the younger brother; the younger brother is respectful towards the older brother
Meaning: A harmonious brotherly relationship

异想天开 | yìxiǎng tiānkāi
Literally: Thinking very differently
 To indulge in one’s wildest fantasy. The equivalent English expression would be “building castles in the air (or in Spain)” or “letting your imagination run away with you”

腹背受敌 | fùbèi shòudí
Literally: Receive enemies from the front and back
Meaning: To be attacked from all sides

防不胜防 | fáng bùshèng fáng
Literally: To defend unsuccessfully
Meaning: Impossible to defend; Cannot be prevented

一手遮天 | yīshǒu zhē tiān
Literally: To cover heaven with one hand
Meaning: To hide the truth from the masses

改天换地 | gǎitiān huàndì
Literally: Change heaven and change the earth
Meaning: To change the world tremendously
Background: 改天 also alludes to changing Emperors who were believed to be Sons of Heaven and 换地 sounds the same as 换帝, haha~

夫唱妇随 | fūchàng fùsuí
Literally: the husband sings and the wife follows
Meaning: Describes marital harmony

大马金刀 | dàmǎjīndāo
Literally: big horse gold knife
Meaning: Describes boldness and grandeur or speaking sharply
Example: Most often seen in WHI describing sitting firmly with one’s legs apart ala manspreading to assert dominance. For a visual, ZW usually sits like this.

凤凰于飞 | fèng huáng yúfēi
Literally: A pair of phoenixes flying together
Meaning: Marital happiness

梨花带雨 | líhuā dài yǔ
Literally: A pear blossom bathed in the rain
Meaning: Describes the tear-stained face of a beauty

美不胜收 | měi bú shèngshōu
Literally: More beauty than one can take in
Meaning: Breathtaking beauty

铁桶一样 | tiětǒng yíyàng
Literally: Like an iron barrel
Meaning: Being unbreakable and having no weak points

过河拆桥 | guò hé chà qiáo
Literally: Crossing a river and destroying the bridge.
Meaning: Being ungrateful – burning one’s bridges. Abandoning one’s benefactor upon achieving one’s goal

鹅毛大雪 | émáo dàxuě
Literally: goose feather large snow
Meaning: Describes big snowflakes or heavy snowfall

Longer Idioms/Phrases

千里之堤毁于蚁穴 | qiān lǐ zhī dī, kuì yú yǐ xué
Literally: An ant may well destroy an entire dam
Meaning: If a small problem is overlooked, it could develop into a big disaster. Ants multiply quickly and make tunnels in dams, allowing water in and consequently causing it to collapse.

心肝宝贝脾肺肾 | xīnggānbǎobèi pí fèi shèn
Literally: As precious as my heart, spleen, lungs, and kidneys
Meaning: Precious darling! An expression of being loved and important!

活要见人,死要见尸 | huó yào jiàn rén, sǐ yào jiàn shī
Literally: If they’re alive, one must see them in person. If they’re dead, one must see their corpse.
Meaning: Wanting to see someone (who is missing) whether they’re alive or dead.

富贵险中求 | fùguì xiǎn zhōng qiú
To seek riches and honour in spite of danger
Meaning: Taking risks in order to succeed (and obtain the wealth and insurance you desire)
Background: It comes with another saying as a pair: ‘成功细中取, 富贵险中求’ (chénggōng xì zhōng qǔ, fùguì xiǎn zhōng qiú). Together, they mean that success lies in the details, and wealth comes to those who take risks rationally. Read more about it here [in Chinese].

以其人之道, 还治其人之身 | yǐ qí rén zhī dào, huán zhì qí rén zhī shēn
Literally:  Using someone’s own logic and tactics to embarrass them 
To pay someone back with their own coin; To give someone a taste of their own medicine

衙门八字开, 有理无钱莫进来 | yámén bāzì kāi, yǒulǐ wú qián mò jìnlái
Literally: The yamen gate is open wide; If you have reason/right but no money, don’t go inside
Meaning: Don’t visit the yamen/government office if you don’t have money to bribe your way out

水中月镜中花 | shuǐ zhōng yüè jìng zhōng huā
Literally: The moon reflected in the water; The flower reflected in the mirror
Meaning: Describes something illusionary or ethereal in a derogatory sense

人要找死,十匹马也拉不回来 | rén yào zhǎo sǐ, shí pǐ mǎ yě lā bù huí lái
Literally: Those who seek death can’t be pulled back, even by ten horses. *Horses are seen as strong animals, and one of their uses used to be to pull people out of pits.
Meaning: Someone is beyond saving

秋后的蚂蚱 | qiūhòude màzha
Literally: A grasshopper at the end of autumn
Meaning: Nearing one’s end

会叫的狗不咬人,会咬人的狗不会叫 | huì jiào de gǒu bù yǎo rén, huì yǎo rén de gǒu bù huì jiào
Literally: A dog who barks does not bite, but a dog who bites does not bark.
Meaning: Used to describe a person who is knowledgeable and tolerant. But, if they were to make a move, they would be utterly ruthless in their methods, often taking their target by surprise.
Background: It comes from a breed of dog that appears very docile at first glance, and will even let you get close to it, but if you offend it or its owner, it will bite you without hesitation.

Ignore this section~ It’s more to keep myself accountable while learning.


  • 04-13-2020
    Translated: 5 chapters | Saved: 58 idiom flashcards | Added/reviewed: 10/58
  • 04-15-2020
    Translated: 6.85 chapters | Saved: 61 idiom flashcards | Added/reviewed: 12/61 | Others: 1/1
  • 07-07-2021
    Translated: 34 (WHI)+9 (HLC) chapters | Moved away from the flashcard system and updated this list according to TL notes instead; Updated until: WHI chapter 50, HLC none

Helpful Chéngyǔ Resources That I’ve Found

  • Baidu is pretty comprehensive for chengyu and anything Chinese, really. For chengyu and sayings, they have cute videos explaining the meaning/story behind them.
  • List of 148 well-known Chengyu by Armando Turturici

Thank you for reading!
Please check back from time to time if you’d like to learn together! 🙂
I’d love to hear any thoughts you might have.

To any Chinese speakers:

  • Do you know the stories behind the chéngyǔ above?
  • How did you learn chéngyǔ?
  • Do you know any resources for learning chéngyǔ?
  • What chéngyǔ are obsolete in modern times?

I deeply appreciate your guidance! (>m<) <3


  • You can buy children’s books that explain a lot of chen yu. Baidu is a good resource, use 成语故事 idiom story, to help you find the right information. For example for 轰轰烈烈, Baidu says


    During the Song dynasty, the anti corruption hero Wen Tian Xiang wrote … blah blah blah… life’s short, what a grand and spectacular event (life)” blah blah blah.

    Also from Baidu, a discussion about the poem can be found by searching for 沁园春·题潮阳张许二公庙

    You can find references to the events by looking up Zhang Zun and Wen Tian Xiang’s opinion on him on wikipedia. I started going down the history rat hole looking at it.

    I like for looking up classical stuff, but I have trouble finding things in it.

    • Wow, thank you so much for the resources, Nopenopenope!! *bows*
      Do you happen to know any resources for poems? Held in the Lonely Castle looks like it will have more artistic/historical references than Why Harem Intrigue.

  • Sorry for the slow reply. I don’t have good resources for poems, there are annotated collections of poems intended for elementary students but I haven’t found one that I really like.

    • Don’t worry about the reply! Thanks for remembering :3

      Ah, okay. I’ve found a few myself (the annotated collections) but sometimes it’s hard to understand the poem’s explanation. E.g. The explanation was harder to translate than the poem itself hahaha… I’ll keep hunting then. Thanks!

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