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Slang Similarities in English and Chinese

chinese salang_c

In the process of learning Chinese, you may find that many slangs or idioms between Chinese and English are similar, like in English “a piece of cake”and in Chinese “小菜一碟 xiǎo cài yì dié”, both expressing how easy something is; in English “casting pearls before swine” and in Chinese “对牛弹琴 duì niú tán qín”, both meaning chatting with the wrong one who could not ever understand you. These slangs and idioms are always used in daily communications. They make learning Chinese more and more interesting and easier for us, don’t they? Now, let’s get more examples:

1、物以类聚,人以群分(wù yǐ lèi jù, rén yǐ qún fēn)

1This idiom is from a story. During the warring states period, the king of JiXuan hoped Chun yukun would recommend some wise men. XuanWang was surprised that Chun recommended seven persons a day, and asked him whether he made up a number without active work . Chun yukun said: “the birds have theirs groups, the beasts have theirs herds. Because I often talk with wise men, so I can do this for you.” “物 wù” is “staffs” or “animals”, “人 rén” is “people”, “类lèi” and“群 qún” have the same meaning of “spices or group”, “聚jù”and“分fēn” are “around or together”, “以yǐ” is used as the preposition like “by.” So this sentence means “Staffs will get together by their spices, people will be around by their groups”. Now this idiom refers to the idea that a good person always make friends with good people, and the bad guys always get together with bad people.

Just like “Birds of a feather flock together” in English, isn’t it?

E.g.  他们俩都很内向,兴趣爱好又差不多,所以总在一起玩儿,真是“物以类聚,人以群分”!
tāmen liǎ dōu hěn nèixiàng, xìngqù ài hǎo yòu chà bù duō, suǒyǐ zǒng zài yìqǐ wánr, zhēn shì “wùyǐlèijù, rén yǐ qún fēn”!
They both are very introverted, having many interests and hobbies in common, so they always hang out together. It is so “Birds of a feather flock together”!

2、一日被蛇咬,十年怕井绳(yī rì bèi shé yǎo, shí nián pà jǐng shéng)

“蛇shé” is “snake”,“井绳jǐng shéng” is “well rope”, “咬yǎo” means “bite”, because the well rope looks like the snake, so if someone were bitten by a snake one time, he would feel scared even at the sight of the well rope for decades. So this idiom means, “Bitten by the snake, once bitten, decades feared”. This idiom refers to the idea that, once hurt after the event, he will be afraid to encounter the same or similar things.

Just like what we have in English, “A burnt child fears the fire,” right?

E.g. 他小心翼翼地做着每一个决定,一日被蛇咬,十年怕井绳,他不想历史的错误再次发生。
tā xiǎoxīnyìyì dì zuò zhe měi yígè jué dìng, yī rì bèi shé yǎo, shí nián pà jǐngshéng, tā bùxiǎng lì shǐ de cuòwù zàicì fāshēng.
He is very careful in making every decision; a burnt child fears the fire, and he doesn’t want the historical mistakes happening again.

3、未雨绸缪(wèi yǔ chóu móu)

2This idiom comes from the book The Collection of Songs. It describes a mother bird that works hard for her nest. There are a few words in the poetry that mean: during the day it has not rained, hurry up to entangle the gap for the bird’s nest, only the nest is strong, not afraid of a storm. “未wèi” means the perfect tense “haven’t,” “雨yǚ” is the verb “to rain,” “绸缪chóu móu” in this idiom means repaired all the staffs. Nowadays, we put this in a few words of poetry extended to “save for a rainy day,” meaning to prepare for what is impending but has not yet happened.

Exactly the same as in English, “Always prepare for a rainy day,” isn’t it?

E. g. 期末考试离我们还有一段时间,但我们都未雨绸缪地开始复习了。
qīmò kǎoshì lí wǒmen háiyǒu yíduàn shíjiān, dàn wǒmen dōu wèiyǔchóumóu dì kāi shǐ fù xí le
Till the final exam, there is a period of time for us, but we have already started to review, like preparing for a rainy day.

4、覆水难收(fù shuǐ nán shōu)

In the Shang dynasty’s last years, there was a resourceful, knowledgeable man, named Jiang Shang. Livelihood issues happened in his home, his wife balked at his poverty, no longer willing to live together with him, and left him. A few years later, Jiang helped Zhou Wu Wang establish the western Zhou dynasty. His wife saw him wealthy and high status, was remorseful that she had left him, and hoped to restore the relationship with him. He poured a pot of water on the earth, and called her to put the water away. She hurried onto the floor to collect the water, but only received some of the mud. He said to her: “you have left me, we can’t get together, just like spilt water cannot be gathered up again.”“覆水fù shuǐ” means “spilt water ”, “难nán” means “difficult ”,“收shōu”means “collect back”,so this idiom means “Spilt water cannot be gathered up again”, “what is done is already done”.

Just like in English, “Don’t cry over spilt milk,” isn’t it?

E.g. 这件事你既然已经做错了,覆水难收,还是吸取教训避免以后再犯吧。
zhè jiàn shì nǐ jìrán yǐjīng zuò cuò le, fù shuǐnán shōu, háishì xīqǔjiàoxùn bìmiǎn yǐhòu zàifàn ba.
Since you have done wrong about this matter, what is done cannot be undone, just learn to avoid it again at a later time.

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Michael Ma

Michael (马志 Ma Zhi),majors in Teaching Chinese as Second Language ,Who has already taught Chinese 3 years in University. Now he is working in the Confucius Institute in Croatia.His academic study fouces on Second Language Acquisition and Cross-cultural Communication. He is also good at training students for HSK Examinations.

This Post Has 8 Comments

    1. True, the classification as “idioms” or “sayings” would be more appropriate in this case. “Slang” are words and expressions used and sometimes understood only by a certain group of people sharing some common features, for example social background, age group or occupation. The article is nevertheless interesting and useful, and you have to be credited for that 🙂

      1. On the contrary, several of these aren’t even ‘idioms’ as conventionally understood, but 成语 ‘chengyu’, a unique form of Chinese idiom based on Classical Chinese. And they are not even high-frequency chengyu. The organization of this paper has been to find Chinese-to-English correspondences without any regard to utility, frequency of usage, genre/register, etc. This creates a false equivalency, and it could actually impede mastery of usage.

        There are dozens of books in English alone, both in PR China and on English-language sites such as, that deal with this rather unimportant area of language learning. It would be far more useful to put to together an article on learning strategies for learning new Chengyu or idioms. Even better, there are two Chinese-learning websites I’ve seen where authors have put together articles on how one should actually avoid certain Chinese idioms and Chengyu. Addressing those issues would be interesting.

        1. Thanks for sharing your resources with us! I will keep on improving myself English Level,and I am always willing to changing ideas with everyone!Your suggestion will help me and some Chinese learners and teachers !

    2. sorry,wrong CV information was uploaded.i taught Chinese in University,and Now i work in the Confucius Institute.Thanks for your kindly grammar explanations.English is not my mother tongue, and i
      may made some mistakes, and thanks for your helping! Expecting for exchanging ideas!

  1. I am still a young teacher who just have been teaching Chinese for 3 years.I
    hope i can have more chances to communicate with everyone and exchange our own opinions! Sometimes my English is not good enough, and I do hope you can point out the mistakes and give me more suggestions! Your help will
    be valued by me!

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