USING IDIOMATIC EXPRESSIONS as I improve my Chinese makes me feel like I actually inhabit the language I’m speaking. I can express different levels of formality and feeling. I actively search for unusual phrases and sayings that make me laugh when I translate them in my head. Here’s a selection of my favourite animal-based ones — they’re some of the funniest.
1. cai niao
A “veggie bird” or “a bird in a dish”
Meaning: a newbie, someone green, who hasn’t yet developed certain skills. Used especially, but not exclusively, on the internet. I’ve come across two explanations of the phrase. 1. It’s a bird so young it can’t catch worms yet, so it has to settle for grain and seeds. 2. It’s an inexperienced bird who got caught and ended up on the table to be devoured by others.
2. tie gongji
An “iron rooster”
Meaning: someone stingy, a tightwad. It comes from another expression describing this kind of behaviour: yi mao bu ba — wouldn’t share even one mao. The pun here being the word “mao,” which can mean either a small coin, a penny, or a feather.
Thus, an iron rooster is a rooster that won’t part with even one of its feathers — they’re so hard to pluck out it might as well be made out of iron.
3. wuya zui
A “crow’s mouth”
Meaning: someone who brings bad things about by talking about them. It’s funny to me as there’s a similar expression in Polish. Looks like crows have a bad reputation all over the world.
4. chui niu
“To blow up a cow”
Meaning: to brag and boast. Apparently (and I’ve only just looked it up) it comes from the northwest of China, where people would use inflated sheep or cow hides as flotation devices to cross a river, sometimes linking several of them into long flotillas. The expression itself evokes a different image in my head.
5. mama huhu
“Horses and tigers”
Meaning: used to describe a person or a behaviour that’s very muddle-headed, casual, so-so. It comes from a story about a careless painter who made a painting of a tiger. A customer came to order a painting of a horse, so the painter made some quick changes to the tiger and tried to pass it off as a horse. The customer refused to buy it, so the painter hung the painting on his own wall.
When his first son asked about it, he said it was a tiger. When the second son did likewise, he said it was a horse. Sometime later, the first son went hunting and saw a neighbour’s horse. Thinking it was a tiger, he shot it, and the painter had to reimburse the neighbour for his loss. Then the second son went for a walk and saw a tiger. Thinking it was a horse, he tried to mount it, but the tiger ate him.
Thus, the correct translation of this phrase should actually be “neither horse nor tiger,” much as in the English saying “neither fish nor fowl.”
“Cow’s vagina” (very common among young men)
Meaning: awesome. People might not use it in front of their elders, as it’s a bit offensive (which is why a lot of times when they write it down, instead of actually using the Chinese characters, they’ll write NB — not unlike when we write “f***ing awesome”). An experience can be “really cow-vagina.” Or a movie. Or a person.
Meaning: talking rubbish. It seems like dogs aren’t very respected in Chinese culture, as there are a lot of derogatory sayings about them (yes, including the one that’s basically the same as English’s “son of a bitch”).
8. fang gezi
“To release a pigeon”
Meaning: to stand someone up. If you release someone’s pigeons (or, in an alternative translation which I prefer, place a pigeon on someone), it means you stand them up. I haven’t found anyone who knows where this phrase comes from (one conjecture was that it has to do with homing pigeons, which usually find their target unless something happens on the way). But I don’t care, it’s one of my favourites.
“A yellow cow”
Meaning: someone who fails to show up to a meeting (someone who releases pigeons on someone else, see above).
10. pai ma pi
“To pat a horse’s butt”
Meaning: to ingratiate oneself, to flatter — my top Chinese expression. Apparently it comes from the nomadic cultures of the northern plains, where having a good horse was a point of pride and if you wanted to be in someone’s good graces, you praised their horses. So if you want to curry favour with someone, all you need to do is spank their horse.
11. da luoshui gou
“To beat a dog that’s fallen in the water”
Meaning: to kick someone while they’re down, to add to someone’s misfortunes. Another dog-abuse expression.
12. zuo ji
“To be a chicken” / “to work as a chicken”
Meaning: to be loose. Or a prostitute, as in the actual profession. It’s a slang expression that most probably comes from the similarity of the words “chicken” and “prostitute.”
13. mao lun
“The cat theory”
Meaning: a situation when you value practical solutions over strictly following an ideology. It comes from the times of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, when China shifted its economy to communism laced with “capitalistic tendencies.” Deng famously said that it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.
14. mao niao
Meaning: weak alcohol. One source claims it’s a dialectical saying and quotes an early 20th-century novel, but it might be that it was actually imported from abroad together with the drink it usually describes (beer). The mystery continues.
15. he long
“Connecting the dragon”
Meaning: connecting two ends (construction). It means uniting something you build from two ends, like a bridge or a tunnel. I like it, because it reminds me of how the brain makes connections. I heard it only once, from my friend whose teacher explained it in class. And somehow, three years later, after all the useful vocabulary has been long forgotten, this one phrase holds out.
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A translator, interpreter and tour guide, but most of all an eternal student of languages and culture. Right now residing in Hangzhou, China, where she's studying art history, hiking in the hills, hanging out with crazy Chinese artists and blogging about her shenanigans and interests. Find her online at her blog.