Learning Chinese can be a real bear. Besides the writing system that shares no common roots with many of the languages used in the western world, tones muddy the water, while those thousands of head-scratching idiomatic expressions just add fuel to the fire.
Idioms post comprehension challenges mainly because it’s difficult to get their real meaning from the literal sense; they only give you an “ah I see” moment once you learn their context. We list a dozen useful and commonly-used Chinese idioms that hopefully will help you to fit in with social situations, or at least impress your Chinese friends.
一石二鸟 (yī shí èr niǎo)
The synonym for this expression is “一箭双雕 (yī jiàn shuāng diāo)”, “To kill two birds with one stone”, means “to solve two problems at once”.
Example: 他不仅谈成了一笔生意，还交了一位朋友，真是一石二鸟。(Tā bú jǐn tán chéng le yī bǐ shēng yì, hái jiāo le yī wèi péng yǒu, zhēn shì yī shí èr niǎo)
He killed two birds with one stone—negotiated a business deal while making a new friend.
大海捞针 (dà hǎi lāo zhēn)
“To look for a needle in the ocean”, means “to look for something that is impossible to find”. Counterpart expression in English: “a needle in a haystack”.
Example: 在这个大城市里找一个人无异于大海捞针。 (Zài zhè ge dà chéng shì lǐ zhǎo yī gè rén wú yì yú dà hǎi lāo zhēn).
Searching for one man in this big city is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
说曹操曹操就到 (shuō cáo cāo cáo cāo jiù dào)
Means that the person you’re just talking about actually turns up at that moment. Cao Cao was a chancellor of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 AD-220 AD). The expression was said to be based on the real story that Cao Cao dropped by when the Emperor Xian of Han was going to summon him to safeguard the emperor. Counterpart expression in English: “speak of the devil”.
Example: 说曹操曹操就到，我们正在讨论新来的同事，他就走进来了。(Shuō cáo cāo cáo cāo jiù dào , wǒ men zhèng zài tǎo lùn xīn lái de tóng shì , tā jiù zǒu jìn lái le).
Speak of the devil, the new colleague walked in when we were talking about him.
小菜一碟 (xiǎo cài yī dié)
Literally means “a plate of food”, counterpart in English: “A piece of cake”.
Example: 任务中最难的部分已经结束了，剩下的是小菜一碟。 (Rèn wù zhōng zuì nán de bù fèn yǐ jīng jié shù le ，shèng xià de shì xiǎo cài yī dié)
The hardest part of the mission passed, and the rest is just a piece of cake.
不要在一棵树上吊死 (bú yào zài yī kē shù shàng diào sǐ)
“Don’t hang yourself on one tree”, means “don’t invest all into a single opportunity at the risk of losing everything”. Counterpart expression in English: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”.
Example: 这个办法行不通就换一个试试，不要在一颗树上吊死。(Zhè gè bàn fǎ háng bú tōng jiù huàn yī gè shì shì ，bú yào zài yī kē shù shàng diào sǐ)
Try another way if this one doesn’t work. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
九牛一毛 (jiǔ niú yī máo)
“One hair from nine oxen”, means “a tiny amount amongst a huge quantity”. Counterpart expression in English: “one drop in the ocean”.
Example: 这点损失对他来说,只不过是九牛一毛。 (Zhè diǎn sǔn shī duì tā lái shuō, zhǐ bu guò shì jiǔ niú yī máo)
For him, the loss was only a drop in the ocean.
水深火热 (shuǐ shēn huǒ rè)
“The water is deep and the fire is hot”, means “in the middle of a difficult situation or period”. Counterpart expression in English: “In hot water”.
Example: 他的生活处于水深火热的状态，刚丢了工作，妻子又在车祸中受了重伤。(Tā de shēng huó chù yú shuǐ shēn huǒ rè de zhuàng tài ，gāng diū le gōng zuò ，qī zǐ yòu zài chē huò zhōng shòu le zhòng shāng)
He is in hot water—just lost his job and his wife got seriously injured in a car accident.
唱白脸 (chàng bái liǎn)
“To sing white face”, means “to play the villain”. In traditional Chinese dramas, usually the antagonist wears white-faced make-up. The antonym is 唱红脸 (chàng hóng liǎn) “to sing red face”. A similar expression in English is “do the dirty work”.
Example: 你只要负责在这个纸上签字就可以了，白脸我来唱。(Nǐ zhī yào fù zé zài zhè gè zhǐ shàng qiān zì jiù kě yǐ le ，bái liǎn wǒ lái chàng)
You go ahead and sign this paper, and I’ll do the dirty work.
炒鱿鱼 (chǎo yóu yú)
“To fry the octopus”, means “get fired or quit the job”.
Example: 他上班总是迟到早退，被老板炒鱿鱼了。 (Tā shàng bān zǒng shì chí dào zǎo tuì，bèi lǎo bǎn chǎo yóu yú le)
He got fired because he is always late to work and leaves early.
吃不了兜着走 (chī bú le dōu zhe zǒu)
“To get more than one bargained for”.
Example: 这件事情要是出了什么差错，老板会让你吃不了兜着走。(Zhè jiàn shì qíng yào shì chū le shí me chà cuò ，lǎo bǎn zhǔn huì ràng nǐ chī bú le dōu zhe zǒu)
You’re asking for real trouble from the boss if you can’t get this done well.
穿小鞋 (chuān xiǎo xié)
“To wear small shoes”, means “be punished in an underhand way”.
Example: 玛丽得罪了校长，因此校长就常给她穿小鞋。(Mǎ lì dé zuì le xiào zhǎng ，yīn cǐ xiào zhǎng jiù cháng gěi tā chuān xiǎo xié)
Mary got across the president, who made life very difficult for her.
闯红灯 (chuǎng hóng dēng)
“Run a red light”, means “to break the rules”.
Example: 他期末考试作弊，在老师的眼皮子底下闯红灯。(Tā qī mò kǎo shì zuò bì, zài lǎo shī de yǎn pí zǐ dǐ xià chuǎng hóng dēng)
He ran the red light in front of the teacher – cheated on the final exam.
打水漂 (dǎ shuǐ piāo)
“To skip stones”, means “to put money in jeopardy”.
Example: 他投资的时候太过草率，十万块钱就这么打水漂了。 (Tā tóu zī de shí hòu tài guò cǎo lǜ ，shí wàn kuài qián jiù zhè me dǎ shuǐ piāo le)
He made a rash decision to invest, putting his RMB 100,000 in jeopardy.