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English Idioms with Chinese Origins

Have you ever wondered where idioms come from? Well, being one of the oldest civilizations on our planet today, it is no surprise that the source of many English sayings is China! The Mandarin word for idiom is 成语 and the most common types are four-character idioms. Ancient Chinese scholars loved their idioms and therefore most of these sayings that we take for granted in English have their roots in ancient Chinese literature.

The purpose of this article is not, however, to delve into the etymology of each saying. The truth is that each saying has a complicated history that includes dialects unrelated to Mandarin and English.  Today, however, I hope to simply bring your attention to some obvious idiomatic overlaps between these two languages.

1. Kill two birds with one stone

一石二 (yī shí èr niǎo)


The overlap here is quite simple and straightforward. The Mandarin translates to “one stone two birds” and English speakers added the ‘kill’ because they could not leave anything to the imagination, and thought it felt slightly incomplete without some classic colonial violence (joking, geez).

2. Love at first sight

见钟(yí jiàn zhōng qíng)


It’s generally used for people, but you can also use it for other physical objects. Here’s an example:

She is my love at first sight.
(Wǒ duì tā yíjiànzhōngqíng.)

3. The customer is always right

顾客就是上帝 (gùkèjiù shì shàngdì)


The Chinese version of the English expression takes the concept of customer service even more seriously. Word for word, this translates as “the customer is God,” which is similar to an Indian saying that “the guest is always God”.  No wonder people working in restaurants seem to have lightning hands here. Someday, Shanghai’s taxi drivers might learn this saying but don’t get your hopes up.

4. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks

老狗玩不出新把 (lǎo gǒu wán bù chū xīn bǎxì)


The translation of this one is almost exactly like it is in English: “Old dogs can’t play new tricks”. It is interesting to notice that in the English versions, we make everything actionable by adding verbs like “teach” and “kill” whereas the Chinese sayings, like photographs, simply attempt to capture the reality of our world (illuminati confirmed).

5. Speak of the devil

说曹操,曹操到 (shuō Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo dào)


This one literally translates to “say Cao Cao, Cao Cao arrives”. Cáo Cāo (曹操) was a warlord during the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history. While he was praised as a brilliant strategist and fair ruler, Chinese opera also represented him as cunning and deceitful. This portrayal was made popular by the literary epic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义Sān Guó Yǎn Yì). The idiom arose out of the belief that Cáo Cāo had many eyes and ears everywhere, and moved with unbelievable speed. You had to be careful when speaking badly about him.

Anytime you are enjoying some gossip and the subject of your conversation suddenly texts, calls, or somehow announces her presence, you can verbalize this coincidence by saying, ” shuō Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo dào”. While the second half of the idiom about the devil showing up is implied in English, no one will ever just leave it at “shuō Cáo Cāo” in Mandarin. So this time, unlike this uninteresting explanation, the English version is shorter. (Boom! take that Mandarin!)


Since there are thousands of idioms in both English and Chinese, This article only managed to expose the tip of the iceberg (冰山一角 bīngshānyījiǎo) concerning idiomatic overlap. Each idiom went through a long etymological journey of its own and there are millions of connections that we did not get to. An obvious one not covered is  ‘long time no see’ which is a literal translation of Mandarin’s “好久不见” (hǎojiǔbújiàn). This one was borrowed (stolen) from Mandarin quite recently and seems to have resulted more from hipsters being hipsters rather than from the depths of human history and culture.

Regardless of where, why and how they came about, the discovery of similarities between two languages that are very drastically different on the surface, insinuates the possibility that our differences are superficial, and we actually have more in common that we like to admit.

Or maybe it just suggests that I love China.  Either way, thanks for reading.

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Dhruv Chatterjee

Dhruv Chatterjee is currently in his third year in China. After spending two years as an English and Music teacher in a small village in Guangdong, he has spent the last year living and working in Shanghai. He enjoys writing, Chinese, music and exploring all the wonderful things Shanghai has to offer.

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