1. 省吃俭用 shĕng chī jiăn yòng – to live frugally
Why it’s important: As someone who grew up with my family’s small business, I have a deep understanding of saving for a rainy day and living modestly. This is a personal favorite of mine because of how it resonates with my upbringing and, more than an expression, it’s also a reminder for us to separate needs vs. wants in this utterly consumer-driven world. This lifestyle rings even more true for travelers on a budget.
How you can use it: It comes in handy when explaining sacrifices you make to achieve a certain goal (i.e., travel to Europe, save up for college, etc).
Sample sentence: 他们 不得不 省吃俭用 以便 送 儿子 进 大学.
tā men5 bù de5 bù shĕng chī jiăn yòng yĭ biàn sòng ér zi5 jìn dà xué.
They had to skimp (on everything) to send their sons to college.
2. 笨鸟先飞 bèn niăo xiān fēi – to work hard to compensate for one’s limited abilities
Why it’s important: This is a personal favorite. We all have our insecurities. We know someone will always be more talented than us in whatever we do. And this idiom expresses the right approach towards dealing with that fact — acceptance and action.
How you can use it: You can use this to express humility for your work and sacrifice. Giving 100% to overcome adversity earns you the respect of others.
Sample sentence: 他知道自己要笨鸟先飞，什么都要努力去争取…
tā zhīdào zìjǐ yào bènniǎoxiānfēi, shénme dōuyào nǔlì qù zhēngqǔ…
He knows he must make up for his lack of ability with effort; he has to strive to earn everything.
3. 自由自在 zì yóu zì zài – carefree / leisurely
Why it’s important: We all lead busy lives. It’s one of the reasons I left my career and went to China to study Chinese. I longed for the carefree student life once more. Sometimes you just want to do something fun to escape the daily grind.
How you can use it: You can use this idiom to describe a fun activity you’re doing, or how you want to free yourself from the shackles of work.
Sample sentence: 那 男孩 坐 在 那里, 自由自在 地 玩 着 玩具
nà nán hái zuò zài nà lĭ zì yóu zì zài dì wán zhăowán jù
The boy sat there, playing with his toy leisurely and carefree.
4. 半途而废 bàn tú ér fèi – to give up halfway
Why it’s important: A New Year’s resolution’s worst enemy; many of us are notorious for leaving things undone.
How you can use it: Perfect idiom to say to your friends who are hitting the gym this January!
Sample sentence: 我 热诚 对待 每 件 事 ，不 喜欢 半途而废
wŏ rè chéng duì dài mĕi jiàn shì bù xĭ huān bàn tú ér fèi
I approach things enthusiastically and I don’t like leaving things half done.
5. 习惯成自然 xí guàn chéng zì rán – Habit becomes nature.
Why it’s important: There are certain things that we do automatically, things that we don’t even think of anymore, which make you you.
How you can use it: This idiom could be used to describe either adoration or exasperation over another person’s idiosyncrasies. It could describe a master pianist who plays the piano effortlessly, or your friend who is always late.
Sample sentence: 他 的 心跳 得 像 打鼓 ； 然而 习惯成自然 ，他 的 脸 上 八成 还是 漠然 的 一团
tā de5 xīn tiào de5 xiàng dă gŭ ；rán ér xí guàn chéng zì rán tā de5 liăn shàng bā chéng huán shì mò rán de5 yī tuán
His heart was thumping like a drum, but his face, from long habit, was probably expressionless.
6. 不进则退 bù jìn zé tuì – Not to advance is to go back.
Why it’s important: Sometimes I feel like nothing is changing in my day-by-day, but when I look back over time everything is different. The world doesn’t stand still — you are either moving forward or stepping back.
How you can use it: This is a good reminder for us to constantly move and never stand still. Learn, explore, travel, live. This could also serve as the wallpaper on your computer or mobile phone to remind you to always move in the right direction.
Sample sentence: 学如逆水行舟，不进则退
xué rú nì shuĭ xíng zhōu bù jìn zé tuì
Study is like sailing against the current; either you keep forging ahead or you keep falling behind.
7. 顺其自然 shùn qí zì rán – to let nature take its course
Why it’s important: Another one of my all-time favorites. I discovered this when I was talking to my cousin who lives in Taiwan. I was teasing her, asking if she has a boyfriend. She then used this idiom as her reply. I had to check my online dictionary and cracked a smile when I found out what it meant. I just found my go-to answer.
How you can use it: If you don’t have an answer to life’s big questions (e.g., When are you getting married?), or just simply want to give an answer without actually answering the question, this is going to be your best friend.
Sample sentence: 我不再为此事发愁了, 顺其自然吧
wŏ bù zài wéi cĭ shì fă chóu le5 shùn qí zì rán ba5
I’ll not worry about it. I’ll let nature take its course.
8. 各有千秋 gè yŏu qiān qiū – Each has his own merits.
Why it’s important: This idiom reminds us not to focus on our shortcomings but to look into ourselves and celebrate the strengths and talents that we have been fortunate enough to be given.
How you can use it: It’s especially useful as encouragement for family and friends going through a rough time. Also, on a lighter note, this could be used to describe things that are incomparable (i.e., comparing apples and oranges). Lastly, it could be used to be polite in circumstances where you don’t want to say anything negative towards someone or something.
Sample sentence: 所有 这些 岛屿 都 风景 秀丽 ，各有千秋
suŏ yŏu zhè xiē dăo yŭ dōu fēng jĭng xiù lì gè yŏu qiān qiū
All these islands are very beautiful, and distinguished by various qualities.
Source credit: www.mdbg.net
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Allan Ngo is the author of 10 Clever Chinese Idioms: Express Yourself Better and Be Absolutely Impressive and writes about language and career at Money in Mandarin.