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Chinese Idioms and Slangs Derived from Animals (Part 2)

In Part 1 of Chinese idioms and slangs, we talked about the 龙(dragon) and the 凤(phoenix, two animals that are traditional symbols of Chinese culture. But of course, they are not the only two animals that are a part of Chinese idioms and slangs. There are more words about animals in the daily lives of the Chinese which are used frequently.

Tiger 老虎

The tiger is probably one of the most well-known carnivores in the world. Adult tigers are apex predators, with strong limbs, powerful jaws, and long tails. Although adult tigers are intimidating creatures, tiger cubs are among the cutest animals in the world.

The Chinese people, long awed by the majesty and power of tigers, have created many words and expressions containing “虎,” such as “虎头蛇尾”(hǔ tóu shé wěi, which means “a fine start but a poor end”), and “老虎屁股摸不得”(lǎo hǔ pì gu muō bù de, which means “do not touch a tiger’s backside”). Here are some more useful Chinese words containing “虎”:

1) “虎背熊腰”(hǔ bèi xióng yāo)

Literally, “虎背熊腰” means “tiger’s back and bear’s waist.”

Colloquially, “虎背熊腰” means that a man is big and burly.



(Tā zhǎng de hǔ bèi xióng yāo de.)

He is a big, burly man.

2) “虎头虎脑”(hǔ tóu hǔ nǎo)

Literally, “虎头虎脑” means “tiger’s head and tiger’s brain.”

Colloquially, “虎头虎脑” means that one (usually a boy) looks sturdy and is simple and honest.



(Wǒ wǔ suì de dì di zhǎng de hǔ tóu hǔ nǎo de, shí fēn kě aì.)

My little brother, an innocent, sturdy, five-year-old boy, is very adorable.

3) “虎口余生”(hǔ kǒu yú shēng)

Literally, “虎口余生” means that “one was rescued from a tiger’s mouth.”

Colloquially, “虎口余生” means that one has managed to narrowly escape from death.



(Yì tán dào zì jǐ hǔ kǒu yú shēng de jīng lì tā jiù fēi cháng xìng fèn.)

Bob gets very excited every time he talks about his narrow escape from death.

4) “狼吞虎咽”(láng tūn hǔ yàn)

Literally, “狼吞虎咽” means “wolf swallows and tiger devours.”

Colloquially, “狼吞虎咽” means that one eats food quickly and greedily.



(Wǒ dē gē ge láng tūn hǔ yàn de chī diào le yì zhī kǎo yā.)

My older brother gobbled up a roasted duck.

5) “狐假虎威”(hú jiǎ hǔ wēi)

Literally, “狐假虎威” means “a fox borrowing a tiger’s fierceness.”

Colloquially, “狐假虎威” means that one bullies others by flaunting one’s powerful connections.



(Tā zhǐ gǎn hú jiǎ hǔ wēi bà le.)

He dares to bully people only because someone powerful is backing him up.

Cattle 牛

“牛”(niú, cattle) is one of the most common animals on earth. Cattle are strong, docile, and obedient, and are ideal for farming. Ancient Chinese people, living in an agricultural country, had been using cattle as a major means to farm and transport goods. Ancient Chinese also consumed beef as a primary source of meat.

Cattle, a big part of the lives of Chinese people, are, of course, frequently used in the language. Below are several common Chinese words and expressions that contain “牛” :

1) “钻牛角尖”(zuān niú jiǎo jiān)

Literally, “钻牛角尖” means “screw the pointy end of an ox’s horn.”

Colloquially, “钻牛角尖” means that one is splitting hairs.



(Tā shì gè ài zuān niú jiǎo jiān de rén.)

She is a person who likes to split hairs.

2) “吹牛皮”(chuī niú pí)

Literally, “吹牛皮” means “blow a bull’s skin.”

Colloquially, “吹牛皮” means “talking big.”



(Rén rén dōu shuō tā ài chuī niú pí.)

People all say that he likes to talk big.

3) “对牛弹琴”(duì niú tán qín)

Literally, “对牛弹琴” means “play the lute to a bull.”

Colloquially, “对牛弹琴” means that it is useless for one to talk professionally with someone outside his profession.



(Gěi Edward jiǎng shù xué jiǎn zhí shì duì niú tán qín.)

It is useless to lecture Edward on math.

4) “九牛一毛”(jiǔ niú yī máo)

Literally, “九牛一毛” means “one hair from nine bulls.”

Colloquially, “九牛一毛” has the same meaning as “a drop in the bucket.”



(Yì bǎi wàn duì yì wàn fù wēng lái shuō bú guò shì jiǔ niú yì máo.)

To a billionaire, one million is only a drop in the bucket.

Chicken 鸡

“鸡”(jī, chicken) is a highly domesticated animal. Chickens can lay eggs, and they comprise a large part of humanity’s meat consumption. For the ancient Chinese, chickens, unlike cattle and sheep, are not only a food source but also a crucial part of their lives. There are also many words, expressions, and idioms in the Chinese language that reflect the close relations between chickens and people’s daily lives.

Here are a few examples:

1) “鸡飞蛋打”(jī fēi dàn dǎ)

Literally, “鸡飞蛋打” means “the hen flies away, and eggs are broken.”

Colloquially, “鸡飞蛋打” means “to suffer a dead loss.”



(Bú yào bǎ tā mēn bī de tài jí, xiǎo xīn jī fēi dàn dǎ.)

Don’t push them too hard; you don’t want to suffer a dead loss.

2) “鸡犬不宁”(jī quǎn bù níng)

Literally, “鸡犬不宁” means “even chickens and dogs do not have peace.”

Colloquially, “鸡犬不宁” means “great turmoil.”



(Jǐ gè qiáng dào bǎ zhè gè xiǎo zhèn nòng de jī quǎn bù níng.)

Several bandits are causing great turmoil in this small town.

3) “鸡毛蒜皮”(jī máo suàn pí)

Literally, “鸡毛蒜皮” means “chicken’s feathers and garlic skins.”

Colloquially, “鸡毛蒜皮” means “trivialities.”



(Bú yào duì shēng huó zhōng jī máo suàn pí de xiǎo shì tài shàng xīn le.)

Don’t think too much about the trivialities in your life.

4) “鸡蛋里挑骨头”(jī dàn lǐ tiāo gǔ tóu)

Literally, “鸡蛋里挑骨头” means “look for a bone in an egg.”

Colloquially, “鸡蛋里挑骨头” means that someone tries to look for a flaw where there’s none to be found.



(Toby dē zhǔ guǎn jiù xǐ huān zài jī dàn lǐ tiāo gǔ tou.)

Toby’s supervisor loves to look for a flaw where there’s none to be found.


Like the Chinese words derived from plants that I have introduced before, the words above are only several common examples of animal-related words in the Chinese language. These words represent ancient Chinese people’s understanding of and attitude to the features of the animals that they were very familiar with. If you are currently learning Chinese, these words will help you better understand the Chinese culture and language.

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Tina Guo

Tina majored in Chinese literature and graduated from Beijing normal university. At present, she is an experienced Chinese language teacher at CCHATTY. She has been teaching the Chinese language to foreigners for 15 years. Her students come from all over the world including Korea, Japan, India, Malaysia, Italy, and so on. She can teach a variety of lessons, such as Spoken Chinese, Chinese Grammar, Junior High Chinese, HSK, and TSC. She also has experience in teaching Chinese to Korean companies. Learn Chinese online with Tina.

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