Idioms are funny old things. Little linguistic idiosyncrasies that offer windows into the paradigm of a culture.

As a native English speaker, learning the basics of the Romance languages isn’t terribly taxing. Certainly, once you have some grip on the fundamentals a world of stuttering conversation lays at your feet.

Yet in studying Mandarin Chinese the basics can be extremely tricky: firstly, mastering tones and how drastically that alters intonation, before handling different grammatical structures and cultural expressions that show the soul of an old and vibrant culture.

Once that foundation has been established and the aim becomes greater fluency, it’s necessary to involve more idiomatic expressions, especially 成语 – chéng yǔ: set idiomatic expressions, usually consisting of four characters.

Though this is barely dipping a toe in the great Chinese idiomatic sea, there is great humor and wisdom to be found and the following are a few of our favorites:

  1. 你奶奶个腿儿! 【nǐ nǎinai gè tuǐer!】- You grandmother’s leg!

A friend’s northern Chinese boss was once venting his frustrations at an employee, finally exclaiming the above expression. A particularly resonant image expressing displeasure at incompetence, though with the effect of the jokey, though exasperated, manner that a well-placed “Oh, piss off!” elicits in British English.

  • So you wanna stretch your legs?

Jin Mao Tower Sky Walk

The Jin Mao Tower is an 88-story (93 if you include the spire!) landmark skyscraper in Lujiazui. Standing at 420.5 metres (1,380 feet) it’s one of the tallest buildings on the planet and guess what? YOU CAN WALK AROUND THE TOP OF IT! Rally some friends, give it as a gift, or face your fears with this once in a lifetime, bucket list worthy attraction!

Jin Mao Tower


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2. 一是一二是二 【yī shì yī èr shì èr】- One is one, two is two

So wonderfully simple, it uses humble vocabulary and its literal meaning is not difficult to grasp. However, its figurative meaning transcends its modest language use: that everything is, or ought to be, perfectly clear-cut; that things are unequivocal.

  • Find beauty in simplicity:

Chinese Calligraphy Class

The simplicity of brush strokes on paper, learn the intricate arts of China during a group calligraphy lesson, taught by a Calligraphy master inside a traditional local Chinese Residence. You will learn the proper way to use the brushes and liquid ink to write Chinese calligraphy, as your instructor demonstrates how to begin and end each stroke. You will be introduced to several of the tools used, including brushes that come in a variety of materials. Finally, create your artistic composition, which requires concentration as you paint characters on the paper.

Calligraphy Class Meet-up Place

¥890 (for 1 - 3 people)

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3. 吃喝拉撒睡 【chī hē lā sā shuì】 – Eat, drink, defecate, urinate, sleep

Perhaps only missing the responsibility of work, this list of actions encapsulates the daily routine. It possesses an unassuming directness, which reflects the often-overlooked directness of the Chinese language-culture. In fact, there’s a very sincere directness to much of daily speech that is far removed from the unscrupulous Orientalist stereotypes. After all, what is daily life other than a cycle of eating, drinking, defecating, urinating, and sleeping?

  • Wanna break the humdrum routine?

Indoor Rock Climbing

Rock climbing can be an extreme sport. It can help you tone up, slim down, train your brain, and build your self-confidence. Basically, rock climbing can help you become the best version of yourself – and who doesn’t want that?

Park Climbing Gym


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4. 对酒当歌 【duì jiǔ dāng gē】- To suit wine, bring song

Like many 成语 the phrase comes from poetry; this from a verse written by the 1stCentury Chancellor of the Eastern Han, Cao Cao. Although often portrayed as a cruel tyrant, Cao Cao was also an accomplished poet and the lines below begin one of his most famous works 短歌行 [Short Song Style], written before The Battle of the Red Cliffs in 208CE:

对酒当歌, 人生几何?

                        譬如朝露,去日苦多。    《曹操》

I lift my drink and sing a song, for who know if one's life is short or long?

Man's life is like the morning dew, past days many future days few - Cáo Cāo

  • Wanna make merry?

Puben Flavors of China: Weekend Brunch

Enjoy this exclusive deal from 247tickets, up to 10% discount off the normal price! Explore the great cuisines of China, while being entertained by a face-changing master and Chinese Zodiac artist! Available every Saturday & Sunday, Puben's new brunch of delicious dishes, tea cocktails and springtime South Bund views, with dishes that are inspired by the four corners of the Middle Kingdom. And with free-flow wine, beer, and cocktails it really is easy to make merry here!

Puben by Jereme Leung


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5. 披荆斩棘 【pī jīng zhǎn jí】- Split Open Trees and Cut Brambles

From daily routine and merriment to bucolic hardships, this phrase imaginatively displays how to proceed in the face of adversity: hack your way through. It does not, however, suggest carelessness. The Chinese pride themselves on their ability to 吃苦[chīkǔ; eat bitterness: bear hardship] and as such the phrase suggests instead the qualities required in the face of adversity: courage, resilience, and vigor.

  • Fancy taking it a bit easier?

CHI The Spa Deep Relaxation Package

In traditional Chinese philosophy, “chi” or “qi” is the universal life force that governs well-being and personal vitality. For good health to be maintained, it is believed that “chi” must flow freely within the body.

At CHI, The Spa, a team of highly qualified therapists is on hand to recommend treatments to suit your individual needs, and thoughtfully selected essential oils and aromatic herbs are used to provide a restorative experience that will leave you feeling refreshed. Enjoy this exclusive deal from 247tickets, up to 45% discount off the normal price!

Pudong Shangri-La


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6. 口干舌燥 【kǒu gān shé zào】- Mouth dry, tongue dry

Perhaps as I am in danger of doing, if your mouth and tongue are both dry then you’ve been talking too much.

  • Wanna let give your eyes and ears a go?

Shanghai Hop-on & Hop-off Bus Tour

See the very best sights that Shanghai has to offer - all from the convenience of an open-top, double-decker bus! Save both time and money as you discover the most famous Shanghainese landmarks: the world-renowned Lujiazui skyline and its towering skyscrapers, the Bund and its historic waterfront, the peace and tranquillity of time-honoured temples, and the leafy streets of the Former French Concession.
Even amongst the hustle and bustle of this huge urban centre, you can take sightseeing at your own pace. As the bus tour tickets are valid for 24 hours, you can hop-on and hop-off completely at your own convenience and, with the option of three different day tours and a night tour to choose from, you can take charge of your own sightseeing tour!

Shanghai Bus Tour Ticket Office

From ¥45

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7. 敝帚千金 【bì zhǒu qiān jīn】- Shabby broom, thousands [of pieces of] gold

Anyone with a penchant for sentimentality will find this image touching: cherishing an old broom as if it were a thousand pieces of gold. The figurative meaning here is to cherish a possession of little value, not limited to worn-out brooms. The juxtaposition of the two images lends a self-deprecating tone also found in the related idiom: 敝帚自珍 【bì zhǒu zì zhēn】- literally, value one’s own old broom; figuratively, to cherish something of little value simply because it is one’s own.

  • We always cherish more those made by our own hand:

Kumihimo Jewelry

Get to grips with the addictive Kumihimo method of making jewelry! You will be instructed in how to use a Kumihimo frame to knot together cords of different colors - its like an adult friendship bracelet! And the best part is that the possibilities are endless - you will always end up with a unique looking piece.

Once you have mastered the basic technique, you will be instructed on how to use jewelry findings to turn your completed cord into a bracelet or necklace. You may even experiment with t-shirt yarn for a different look!



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8. 河青海晏 【hé qīng hǎi yàn】- Yellow River clear, sea calm

The complementary combination of a clear river and a calm sea suggests stillness and peace. Indeed, the figurative meaning of this beautiful natural image is that the world is at peace. Although it is easy to become enthralled by the metropolitan behemoths that China possesses, it is also home to stunning scenery.  I find this phrase calls to mind the ink wash paintings of Classical China, the poetry of the Chinese Zen masters (in China, Chan Buddhism), and this famous poem by the Tang Dynasty poet, Wang Zhi Huan:

‘On the Stork Tower’
The sun beyond the mountains glows;
The Yellow River seaward flows.
You can enjoy a grander sight,
By climbing to a greater height.

  • In the mood for stunning scenery?

3-Day Avatar Mountain & Glass Bridge Luxury Tour Weekend

Zhangjiajie is a place not to be missed on your tour of China. Located on the north-western border of Hunan Province, this National Forest Park is famous for its unusual, but breathtakingly beautiful scenery, which includes more than three thousand unique rock ridges and sandstone quart peaks and eight hundred ghylls. See the Heavenly Pillar, which was the inspiration of The Hallelujah Mountains in the film Avatar.



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9. 对牛弹琴 【duì niú tán qín】- To cow, play qin [a seven stringed instrument, similar to the zither]

As well as again being evocative, there is a deep humor to this phrase, too. This entire piece may well be akin to playing an instrument to a cow – addressing the wrong audience/talking over someone’s head. It also reminds of the time my friends and I were chased by a field of cows in the Highlands of Scotland, having been singing along to Phil Collins. It may have been that our bovine foes preferred Peter Gabriel; however, it brings attention to how talking over someone’s head can lead to dismissive, even aggressive, reactions. Common language builds bridges.

Chinese Class

Whether you’re a complete beginner or near-native level, these classes have got you covered. Learn more about the language, culture, and civilization from well-experienced native teachers. 好好学习!

South Shanxi Road

¥1320 for 12 classes

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Remember then that life is short but to be enjoyed, to burst through life’s challenges, to keep your mouth and tongue well-hydrated, to sing when you’re drinking, and to enjoy peaceful rural views, as everything’s perfectly clear cut. And never accept a gig at the local dairy farm...