Popular Chinese Idioms that are Useful in Everyday Life

The modern Chinese language makes frequent use of idioms, both in writing as well as in everyday conversation. A vast majority of these idioms are in the form of four-character expressions. Many are distilled from some very old stories, and the idioms themselves are essentially summaries of these stories. In this blog post, I will discuss three common Chinese idioms and the stories behind them.


自相矛盾 – “One’s own spear and shield”

There was once a man who was selling a spear and a shield in a busy marketplace. He first held up his shield and announced to the crowd, “My shield is the strongest shield in the world. It can withstand a blow from any weapon!” He then held up his spear and said, “This is the sharpest spear in the world! It is sharp enough to penetrate any object!” At this point, someone asked him, “If I were to thrust your spear at your shield, what would happen?” The man could not respond, and the crowd laughed at him.

The expression “自相矛盾,” literally “one’s own spear and shield,” thus came to refer to someone contradicting him/herself, either in words or in actions. For instance, it could be used to describe a politician who noticeably flip-flops on an important issue.


狐假虎威 – “The fox borrows the tiger’s menace”

One day, a tiger was hunting in the forest and caught a fox. He was about to eat the fox when the fox said, “Don’t eat me. The Creator put me in this forest to be king of all of the animals. If you eat me, you will be disobeying the will of Heaven.” Seeing that the tiger was skeptical, he continued: “If you don’t believe me, just go on ahead and let me follow you, and you’ll see that all of the animals will run away as soon as they see me.” The tiger did as the fox said. As the two paraded around the forest, the tiger noticed all of the animals running away, and believed the fox. It did not occur to the tiger that it was him, rather than the fox, that the animals were running from.

Today, the expression “狐假虎威” is usually used to describe people who take advantage of their association with a figure of power to intimidate or bully others. For example, a child who likes to pick fights with other children his age whenever his older brother is around is guilty of “borrowing the tiger’s menace.”


画蛇添足 – “Drawing a snake and adding feet”

One day, a group of people held a snake-drawing competition, with a jug of wine as the winner’s prize. The rules were simple – the first person to finish drawing a snake in the earth with a stick would win the prize. One of the participants finished his drawing very quickly. He was about to claim his prize when he began to gloat, and said to the others, “All of you are so slow! I can draw feet on my snake and still finish before the rest of you!” So he picked up his drawing stick, and sure enough, he added feet to his drawing before any of the others were done with theirs. Just as he reached out for the jug of wine, the second person finished. He took the jug away from the original winner and asked, “When was the last time you saw a snake with feet?

The expression “画蛇添足” refers to someone doing too much to improve something that is already good, and in the process making it much worse. It bears some similarity to the English expression “gilding the lily,” although in the case of the Chinese idiom, the emphasis is not on exaggeration or over embellishment, but rather on the complete reversal of an originally good result. For instance, a criminal who provides the police with a convincing false alibi, but then gives himself away when he tries to add one minor detail that makes his whole story unravel, can be said to have committed the error of “drawing a snake and adding feet.”

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