Chinese phrases with no direct meaning

April 10, 2021

Just like every language in the world, Chinese also has some metaphoric phrases that are commonly used but, if translated directly, have no logical sense. Like for example in English - "a piece of cake" means something easy to deal with, and not actually a dessert. Today we will teach you some of the most well-known Chinese phrases, and once you have learned them your Chinese will sound more native.

(1) 咸吃萝卜淡操心(xián chī luó bo dàn cāo xīn )

Literal translation: Eat salty carrot, worrying with blend flavor.

Actual meaning: "Don't worry too much, but if you have to, only stress about the main thing".

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(2) 刀子嘴豆腐心(dāo zǐ zuǐ dòu fǔ xīn )

Literal translation: Talks like knives but has a heart soft as tofu.

Actual meaning: It means a person may sound harsh but is actually very kind, soft and generous. A knife and tofu are great opposites of hard and soft, so this phrase can be understood even by non-native speakers.

(3) 癞蛤蟆想吃天鹅肉(lài há má xiǎng chī tiān é ròu )

Literal translation: A toad wants to eat swan meat.

Actual meaning: It describes something which is extremely impossible or unrealistic, just as impossible as a toad that wants to eat swan meat. 


(4) 打水漂(dǎ shuǐ piāo )

Literal translation: A splash 

Actual meaning: it's a metaphor describing something that was failed or wasted, as if it was "thrown into the water"

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(5) 赶鸭子上架(gǎn yā zǐ shàng jià )

Literal translation: Lead the ducks to the shelves

Actual meaning: This phrase is used when someone is forced to do something that is way too difficult for him/her.


(6)  捡了芝麻丢西瓜(jiǎn le zhī má diū xī guā )

Literal translation: Pick up sesame but dump watermelon 

Actual meaning: In ancient times sesame was the smallest thing people could think of, whereas watermelon was the largest fruit by size. The given phrase is used when someone sacrifices a big thing for a tiny thing, which is not worth it - and you are trying to tell this person to focus on the bigger picture.

(7)  破罐子破摔(pò guàn zǐ pò shuāi )

Literal translation: Break a broken jar

Actual meaning: When someone finds himself in a bad situation but instead of improving it, he/she keeps making it even worse.

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(8) 死马当活马医(sǐ mǎ dāng huó mǎ yī )

Literal translation: Giving medical treatment to a dead horse, as if you were treating a horse which is alive.

Actual meaning: It means a situation is almost bad and cannot get any worse, so "give it a try it anyways, pretend that the horse is still alive". Just do it!


So here are eight most commonly used metaphoric phrases in Chinese, and hopefully you can start practicing and next time surprise your Chinese friends ;)

Written by Francesco Peng for IMCPI