10 Charming Chinese Idioms and Proverbs (and Their Origins)

One phrase about a ghost eating tofu is another way of saying “yeah right!”
FotografiaBasica/E+/Getty Images (globe), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (speech bubble)
facebooktwitterreddit

Idioms and proverbs can be found in thousands of different cultures and languages across the world—and although there are often parallels between the meanings of these sayings, they usually can’t be translated exactly from one language to another, as they have their roots in culturally-specific phrases or traditions. From ghosts that eat tofu to an angry Buddha, here are 10 Chinese idioms and proverbs alongside their origin stories. (Note: Each subheading is in Traditional Chinese, with the Simplified Chinese in the entry itself.)

馬死落地行 (maa5 sei2 lok6 dei6 haang4) // “If your horse dies, get on the ground and walk”

This phrase (in Simplified Chinese, 马死落地行, or mǎ sǐ luò dì xíng) originated in Guangdong Province back in the era when people traveled by horseback. Of course, if your horse died mid-journey, you still had to continue walking, no matter how adverse the conditions were. That’s why this phrase has now come to mean “to keep going in the face of adversity” or “to stand on your own two feet.” It can also be used more critically, when talking about people who have always had it easy finally being forced to take some action when they’ve been backed into a corner.

豬籠入水 (zyu1 lung4 jap6 seoi2) // “Water enters a pig cage”

Farmers in ancient China transported their pigs in bamboo cages that they would then carry to market. Since the bamboo was woven, there were small gaps throughout—so if the cage was tossed into a lake, for example, water would rush in. As water has long been a symbol for wealth in Chinese culture, this idiom (猪笼入水, or zhū lóng rù shuǐ, in Simplified Chinese) means “to make a lot of money” or “to have financial abundance”—in other words, wealth is pouring in from all directions.

食碗面反碗底  (sik6 wun2 min2 faan2 wun2 dai2) // “To eat a bowl then flip it over”

Bowl of rice on a wooden table
Don’t turn this bowl over. / Yagi Studio/Digital Vision/Getty Images

The only time you flip a bowl in Chinese culture is when performing traditional rites and offering food to your ancestors. Because the gesture is associated with the dead, doing it at a living person’s table would be considered extremely rude—so this idiom (in Simplified Chinese, 食碗面反碗底, or shí wǎn miàn fǎn wǎn dǐ), means “to be ungrateful” or “to bite the hand that feeds you.”

皇帝唔急太監急  (wong4 dai3 m4 gap1 taai3 gaam1 gap1) // “The emperor doesn’t hurry but the eunuchs do”

In Imperial China, eunuchs were responsible for most palace duties, ranging from everyday functions (repairing palace buildings, preparing meals, and taking care of animals) to being the Emperor’s personal secretary. As such, they were always busy with royal duties while the Emperor was comparatively at ease. So, this expression (皇帝唔急太监急, or huáng dì bù jí tài jiàn jí, in Simplified Chinese) means “To worry excessively about someone else’s business (when they themselves aren’t worried).” It’s used to describe people who are preoccupied with things that are of no concern to them.

呃鬼食豆腐 (aak1 gwai2 sik6 dau6 fu6) // “To trick the ghost into eating tofu”

A bowl of tofu
“To trick the ghost into eating tofu” is a rather delightful way to say “yeah right!” / Dragos Rusu/500px/Getty Images

The origin of this proverb is hard to determine, but according to one folktale, a scholar in ancient China met a hungry ghost who wanted to eat him; the scholar convinced the ghost that tofu would be more delicious, which allowed him to escape. But when the scholar told other people of his encounter, they didn’t believe him, hence why this expression (in Simplified Chinese, 呃鬼食豆腐, or è guǐ shí dòu fǔ)  is now used to express disbelief at other people’s tall tales. It’s like saying “you’re kidding” or “yeah right!”

多個香爐多隻鬼 (do1 go3 hoeng1 lou4 do1 zek3 gwai2) // “One more censer, one more ghost”

Incense is used in a lot of traditional Chinese ceremonies, particularly when worshipping gods and ancestors. By using another, new censer, you’re paying respects to another ghost—and so this phrase (多个香炉多只鬼, or duō gè xiāng lú duō zhī guǐ, in Simplified Chinese) is used to mean “inviting trouble by involving more people” or “too many cooks spoil the broth.”

佛都有火 (fat6 dou1 jau5 fo2) // “Even Buddha catches fire”

Statue of Buddha
Even Buddha has his limits. / anuchit kamsongmueang/Moment/Getty Images

Buddha was known for his patience and kindness (after all, he did reach enlightenment), so when someone’s behavior is enough to make even Buddha angry, it highlights how truly outrageous they’re being. You would use this expression—which means “that’s enough” (in Simplified Chinese, 佛都有火, or fó dū yǒu huǒ)—to emphasize that you’ve completely reached your limit.

冬瓜豆腐 (dung1 gwaa1 dau6 fu6) // “Winter melon and tofu”

According to traditional Chinese customs, a seven-course vegetarian feast is served right after a funeral. This meal marks the start of the mourning period and is supposed to remove any bad luck lingering from the death. Winter melon and tofu are almost always present in these dishes, so the two ingredients have now become synonymous with bad luck and death. That’s why this phrase (冬瓜豆腐, or dōng guā dòu fǔ, in Simplified Chinese) is used to refer to an unfortunate mishap (it’s typically a euphemism for death).

食鹽多過你食米 (sik6 jim4 do1 gwo3 nei5 sik6 mai5) // “I have eaten more salt than you have eaten rice”

wooden bowl of salt with spoon
In China, you might hear elders tell younger people, “I have eaten more salt than you have rice.” / Chris Hackett/Tetra Images/Getty Images

Because rice is the staple food of Chinese diets, it is nigh-on impossible for anyone to eat more salt than the average Chinese person eats rice, no matter how much older they may be—but that doesn’t stop Chinese elders from using this expression (in Simplified Chinese, 食盐多过你食米, or shí yán duō guò nǐ shí mǐ ) to put young people in their place when they want to emphasize how much more knowledge or experience they have in something.

企喺城樓睇馬打交 (kei5 hai2 sing4 lau4 tai2 maa5 daa2 gaau1) // “To stand on a fort and watch horses fight each other”

In ancient China, as in most other ancient cultures, wars were fought on horseback and cities were protected by fortresses and sprawling walls. This expression (in Simplified Chinese, 企喺城楼睇马打交, or qǐ xì chéng lóu dì mǎ dǎ jiāo), which means “to stay out of it,” is used to refer to those who keep themselves out of conflict and observe from the side lines, taking inspiration from the soldiers who were safely ensconced in their forts while others had to fight below. The expression is slowly being phased out in favor of a more modern one: 食住花生等睇戲 (sik6 zyu6 faa1 saang1 dang2 tai2 hei3, or 食住花生等睇戏, shí zhù huā shēng děng dì xì, in Simplified Chinese), which can be translated as “eating peanuts while waiting to watch a film.”

Read More Stories About Idioms:

manual