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Chinese Idioms & Slangs Derived from Animals (Part 1)

Animals have always been an indispensable part of the Chinese people’s daily lives. Naturally, many Chinese words reflect the close relationship between animals and the Chinese people. For example, in the Year of the Dragon, people will say “生龙活虎”(shēng lóng huó hǔ, which means doughty as a dragon and lively as a tiger); this describes someone who is full of vim and vigor. In this article, I will present to you a few frequently used animal-related Chinese words.

Dragon 龙

“龙”(lóng, dragon) is, a fictitious animal (just like it is in Western cultures). This animal combines the features of many real animals such as the deer, ox, fish, snake, and so on. “龙” has a unique significance to the Chinese people. In the minds of the Chinese, “龙” is holy and sacred and can control the rain and wind. The Chinese people often proudly call themselves “龙的传人”(lóng de chuán rén, descendants of “the dragon”).

Below are some common Chinese words involving “虎”:

1) “龙潭虎穴”(lóng tán hǔ xué)

Literally, “龙潭虎穴” means “dragon’s pond and tiger’s lair.”

Colloquially, “龙潭虎穴” means “a dangerous place.”


(Jīng chá jīng cháng shēn rù lóng tán hǔ xué qù diào chá yí nán àn jiàn.)
The police often walk into dangerous places to investigate difficult cases.

2) “龙腾虎跃”(lóng téng hǔ yuè)

Literally, “龙腾虎跃” means “dragon rises and tiger jumps.”

Colloquially, “龙腾虎跃” means “very active.”


(Yùn dòng chàng shàng, tóng xué mén gè gè lóng téng hǔ yuè.)
The students on the playground are all very active.

3) “龙争虎斗”(lóng zhēng hǔ dòu)

Literally, “龙争虎斗” means “a tiger and a dragon fight each other.”

Colloquially, “龙争虎斗” means “a fierce struggle between well-matched opponents.”


(Zhè liǎng duì lóng zhēng hǔ dòu, bǐ sài fēi cháng jī liè.)
The two opposing teams, having engaged in a fierce struggle with each other, presented the spectators with a very exciting game.

4) “龙蛇混杂”(lóng shé hùn zá)

Literally, “龙蛇混杂” means “dragons and snakes jumbled together.”

Colloquially, “龙蛇混杂” means “good people and bad people mixed together.”


(Zhè gè xiǎo qū lóng shé hùn zá, bú lì yú guǎn lǐ.)
There are both bad and good people in this community, which causes problems in management.

5) “鲤鱼跳龙门”(lí yú tiào lóng mén)

Literally, “鲤鱼跳龙门” means that a carp leaps over the dragon’s gate.

Colloquially, “鲤鱼跳龙门” means “ordinary people succeeding in national exams in feudal China.”


(Zài gǔ dài zhōng guó, rén rén dōu xiǎng lǐ yú tiào lóng mén.)
In ancient China, everyone wanted to succeed in national exams and become government officials.

Other Chinese words that are related to “龙”:

  • “龙舌兰”(lóng shé lán): maguey
  • “龙须面”(lóng xū miàn): long, thin noodles
  • “龙井茶”(lóng jǐng chá): a famous green tea produced in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province
  • “龙袍”(lóng páo): a yellow gown embroidered with dragons worn by emperors
  • “一条龙服务”(yì tiáo long fú wù): one-stop service

Phoenix 凤凰

“凤凰”(fèng huáng, phoenix) is also a fictitious animal. The phoenix is called the “king of the birds.” Legendarily, “凤凰,” just like “龙”, combines the features of many real animals, such as the swallow, snake, fish, deer, turtle, and so on. Originally, a male phoenix was called “凤”(fèng), and a female phoenix was called “凰”(huáng). After the Qin and Han dynasties, people gradually didn’t speak of the male phoenix, and “凤凰” only refers to the female phoenix.

“凤凰” is considered the symbol of harmony and auspiciousness by the Chinese people. Across Chinese history, “凤凰” has always been an essential part of the Chinese culture and language.

1) “龙飞凤舞”(lóng fēi fèng wǔ)

Literally, “龙飞凤舞” means “dragon flies and phoenix dances.”

Colloquially, “龙飞凤舞” means “lively and vigorous handwriting style.”


(Zhè wèi lāo shī xiě de zì rú lóng fēi fèng wǔ.)
The Chinese characters my Chinese teacher wrote are lively and vigorous.

2) “凤毛麟角”(fèng máo lín jiǎo)

Literally, “凤毛麟角” means “phoenix’s feathers and qílín’s horns.”

Colloquially, “凤毛麟角” refers to “rare things or exceptional people.”


在军队,女兵有如 “凤毛麟角。”
(Zài jūn duì, nǚ bīng yǒu rú “fèng máo lín jiǎo.”)
In the army, female soldiers are extremely rare.

3) “凤泊鸾飘”(fèng bó luán piāo)

Literally, “凤泊鸾飘” means “phoenix berths and luán (also a mythical bird) wanders.”

Colloquially, “凤泊鸾飘” means that a couple is separated from one another.


(Zhè duì fū fù bā nián lí sàn, fèng bó luán piāo, tuán jù shí, xǐ jí ér qì.)
This couple, separated from one another eight years ago, cried out of pure joy when they were reunited.

4) “攀龙附凤”(pān lóng fù fèng)

Literally, “攀龙附凤” means “climb a dragon and stick to a phoenix.”

Colloquially, “攀龙附凤” means “playing up to people of power and influence.”


(James jīn tiān de chéng jiù dōu shì pān lóng fù fèng dé lái de.)
James is what he is because he played up to people of power and influence.

Animals are essential to people’s lives. Such importance is reflected in animals’ roles in human language. Above I have shown you how the Chinese see some animals through a few Chinese words related to these animals, but these words are only the tip of the iceberg. Stay tuned for the second part of this article.

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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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