Speak Chinese Like a Native! Five Popular Chinese Idioms/Slangs

2013 July 30
by Junyu Z

Popular Chinese Idioms

Everyone realizes that learning idioms of a foreign language is an interesting way to sound “native-like”. For English as second language learners, UrbanDictionary is an awesome place to check out interesting popular English idioms. However, it is a pity that there is no such a counterpart the Chinese language as of yet. This article picks out five of the Top 10 popular Chinese idioms of 2012, selected by an authoritative Chinese language magazine, “Yao Wen Jue Zi”.

Flashcards and Pronunciation of the Article:


  • 压力山大(yā lì shān dà) – being under a lot of pressure

√ Vocabulary Preview

压力 yā lì pressure n.
shān mountain n.
big adj.
像…一样 xiàng…yī yàng as…as…

√ Meaning

People use “压力山大” to describe themselves as “being under a lot of pressure”.

“压力山大” is abbreviated from its complete version of “压力(像)山(一样)大”, and “像…一样” is omitted to make the phrase concise. Literally, it is translated to “the pressure is as high (big) as the mountain.”

√ Usage

e.g.1:

[最近: recently 准备: to prepare 期末考试: final exam]

A: 你最近怎么样?

    (How are you doing?)

B: 我在准备期末考试,压力山大。

    (I am preparing for my final exams, so I am under a lot of pressure.)

e.g.2:

[很多:many 朋友:friends 找到:have found 工作:jobs 感到:feel]

我很多朋友都找到工作了,我感到压力山大。

(Many of my friends have already got their job offers, so I am feeling a lot of pressure.)

 √  Extension

While “高gāo” is the proper adjective to use before “山”, we use “大dà” instead in this phrase. Therefore, you may wonder why Chinese people say “压力山大” instead of “压力山高”.  Here is the reason:

“Alexander the great” (“亚历山大大帝” as in Chinese translation) is very well-known to Chinese people, and “亚历山大” (Alexander) is pronounced as “yà lì shān dà”. As you may have found out, “亚历山大” is pronounced exactly the same as “压力山大” except for the tone of their first characters.

“压力山大” has an interesting variation of “鸭梨山大”, pronounced as “yā lí shān dà”. Again, it is pronounced exactly the same as “压力山大” except for the tone of their second characters. “鸭梨” is the name of a kind of pear. People use it to replace “压力” in order to create a humorous effect.

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  • 躺着也中枪(tǎng zhe yě zhòng) –get involved in something for no reason (innocently and passively)

√ Vocabulary Preview

躺着 tǎng zhe laying down
tǎng to lay down v.
中枪 zhòng  qiāng get hit by gun shot
zhòng get hit by v.
qiāng gun n.
yet(in this context) adv.

 √ Meaning

This phrase describes when someone gets involved in something for no reason, or someone is collateral damage, meaning that he or she didn’t intend on getting involved. Literally, this sentence means someone got shot even though he or she was laying down.

 √ Usage

e.g.1

[恭喜: congratulations 听说: hear 马上: soon 结婚: to get married 女朋友:girlfriend]

A: 恭喜。听说你马上要结婚了。

    (Congratulations! I heard that you are going to be married soon.)

B: 真是躺着也中枪啊,我还没有女朋友。

(This is coming out of nowhere! I don’t even have a girlfriend.)

 e.g.2

[新闻: news 跳楼: jump out of the building 街上: on the street 砸: hit 伤: get hurt]

A: 你听到新闻了吗?有个人跳楼,结果把街上的路人砸伤了。(Have you heard the news? Someone jumped out of the building and a passerby got hit by a body.)

B: 那人真是躺着也中枪啊。(The person is really unlucky!)  

 e.g.3

[妹妹: younger sister 刚才: just now摔倒: get tripped 怪: blame someone for 照顾: to take care]

A: 我真是躺着也中枪。(I’m totally innocent!)

B: 怎么了?(What happened?)

A: 我妹妹刚才自己摔倒了,妈妈怪我没有照顾好她。(My little sister tripped just now, and my mom blamed me for not taking good care of her.)

 √ Extension

Known from its meaning, “躺着也中枪” is usually used in situations when one is not supposed to be involved in an incident, yet becomes involved. But how is the connection made between its literal meaning and its meaning in use? The phrase means you’re laying down and you got shot. It’s emphasizing even if you’ve done nothing you still get involved in the situation. “躺着” is a metaphor for “when a person does nothing wrong” or “already tried to avoid the situation.” “中枪” is a metaphor for “bad things happened.”

In Chinese, it is quite common to use abbreviations, such as“躺着也中枪” also be abbreviated as “躺枪”, “躺中” or “中枪”。

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  • 高富帅 (gāo fù shuài) – Prince Charming (Men who are tall, rich and handsome)

√ Vocabulary Preview

gāo tall adj.
rich adj.
shuài handsome adj.

√ Meaning

“高富帅“is a fixed phrase whose meaning is similar to Prince Charming. “高富帅” describes an ideal man for Chinese people, who is tall, rich and handsome.

 √Usage

In actual use, this phrase is not restricted to use on a man who is tall, rich and handsome. It applies in contexts when the person is from the upper class.

e.g.1

 [名牌: luxury brands 肯定: for sure ]

他全身都是名牌,肯定是个高富帅。

(He was dressed in designer clothing from head to toe. He must be rich.)

e.g. 2

[男朋友: boyfriend 自己: oneself]

A: Anna的男朋友是个高富帅。

(Anna’s boyfriend is very charming and rich.)

B: Anna自己就是个白富美。

(Anna is very charming and rich herself.)

A: 也对,我们这种矮穷挫就不用想了。

(Right, unsuccessful people like us can’t even dream of it.)

 √ Extension

There are two new phrases, “白富美” and “矮穷挫” in the second example above.  What do they mean?

 “白富美(bái fù měi)” is the girl version for “高富帅”. “白”, white, refers to light skin tone; 富, rich; 美, beautiful. Here, “白” is used because Chinese people value light skin tone for the beauty of girls.

“矮穷挫 (ǎi qióng cuó)”, to the opposite of “高富帅” and “白富美”, refers to people who tend to be unsuccessful. “矮”, short; 穷, poor; 挫, loser-like.

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  • (zàn) – great(adj.); to praise(v.); praise(n.)

√  Vocabulary Preview

zàn adj./v./n. great/to praise/praise

 √ Meaning

When “赞” is used as an adjective, it means “great”, “good” or “nice”; when used as a verb, it means “to praise”; when used as a noun, it means “a praise”.

 √ Usage

As an adjective:

e.g. 1

妈妈:妈妈做的菜怎么样?

(Mom: How’s my cooking?)

你:赞!(or 妈妈做的菜好赞!)

(You: Great!) or (Mom your cooking is awesome!)

e.g. 2

女朋友/男朋友:我今天的衣服好看吗?

Girl/Boyfriend: How do my outfits look today?

你:赞!

(You: Terrific!)

 As a verb:

 [周杰伦: Jay Chow : to release : new 专辑: album]

周杰伦出了新专辑。赞一个!

(Jay Chow just released a new album! Liked!)

 As a noun:

周杰伦出了新专辑。给一个赞!

(Jay Chow just released a new album!(I will) Give him a like!)

√ Extension

Why did this verb became popular recently? Because the “like” button on Facebook is popular. In the Facebook platform in Chinese, the “like” button is presented as “赞”. Therefore, people use it as an extension in real life conversations. 

                   v

  • 坑爹(kēng diē) – to deceive people

√ Vocabulary Preview

kēng v. to cheat, to deceive
diē n. father

 √ Meaning

“坑爹” refers to “cheating” or deceiving”. Literally, it means “to deceive someone’s father”. Its meaning is potentially sarcastic.

 √Usage

“坑爹” is usually used as an adjective to complain in a situation.

e.g. 1

[电话公司: phone company 收: to charge]

电话公司多收了我50块钱,太坑爹了。

(The company charged me an extra 50 bucks on my phone bill. They are ripping me off.)

e.g. 2

[餐馆: restaurant 贵: expensive 难吃: taste bad]

那家餐馆好坑爹,又贵又难吃。

(The restaurant is so not worth the price. It’s expensive and their dishes didn’t taste good. )

 Sometimes, “坑爹” can also be used as a verb.

e.g.

你是在坑爹吧。

(You got to be kidding me)

 √ Extension

This phrase is originally from a dialect in Northern China. Traditionally, “坑” is a noun that means “pit” or “hole”, and is used as a verb in this phrase. It is a statement that says someone digs a hole in the floor to trap a passersby. Therefore, “坑” expresses the meaning of “to cheat, to swindle, to deceive, to defraud, or to trick” in this sense.

Although “爹” is translated as “father”, it does not express the meaning of “someone’s father” in this phrase. In the Chinese language, people usually use different pronouns(“爹”、“哥”、“姐”, for example) to refer to themselves. In this sense, “坑爹” has the equal meaning as “坑我”. The term “爹” expresses a sense of superiority when a person is referring to him/herself. To understand, imagine a person who thinks him/herself is superior yet gets deceived. Then he/she will be even madder than people who don’t think of themselves as superior and yet still get deceived. Therefore, using the term “爹” exaggerates the anger factor in this phrase with an additional sense of humor.

                     b

 

The five idioms presented in this article are very different from the formal Chinese that we learn in class. Knowing about these idioms helps you to improve your Chinese language ability. It will be super cool if you can apply these idioms when you are casually chatting with Chinese speakers, because people will be amazed by your knowledge of the trendy sayings in the Chinese community.  Besides, you can learn the essence of a language and how it reflects its culture . For example, “压力山大”、“躺着也中枪” and “坑爹” all add a sense of humor when people are describing negative situations; this reflects the positive attitude that the Chinese have when dealing with problems.

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