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For those who just speak English, or any other Western language for that matter, understanding the Chinese language – both in written and verbal forms – can be a challenging task, even if you are curious about interesting idioms in Chinese. The country is quite literally on the other side of the world and its people’s cultures can often be considered to be far removed from what those native to the UK and other similar regions might expect.
However, if you have aspirations to work in China or successfully trade with Chinese businesses, then gaining an insight into how this fascinating country operates is vital. The key to this is getting an understanding of the semantics behind phrases you may come across and linguistics in general.
In any language, idioms can often be tricky to translate, as the literal meaning may not make much sense without an explanation of context. However, to be a fluent speaker, it is a hurdle that has to be leapt over.
With this in mind, here are a few interesting Chinese idioms – known as chengyus in their native language – that might need a bit of background.
To cast a brick to attract jade
This is a literal translation of ‘pao zhuan yin yu’, which means you are effectively saying you are just throwing an idea into the mix.
Historically, jade has been a highly-prized material by China and this idiom references that by suggesting you are hoping to chuck a poorly thought out idea into a melting pot with the hope that it can be developed into something much better.
A humble attitude is often well received when conducting business in the country, as it is considered rude to be over familiar or aggressive, so this phrase could come in handy when you are offering an input into how you and your Chinese partner can move forward on an issue.
To step on solid ground
While this idiom might seem a little confusing at first glance, the meaning behind it isn’t too different from its English equivalent.
This translation of ‘jiao ta shi di’ means to stay grounded and push forward, which signifies the speaker intends to work hard, stay focused and proceed in a steady fashion, so they are not rushing headlong into a situation without thinking.
It is considered to be an extremely positive chengyu, again highlighting Chinese values and the importance of humility and inner strength.
Nine cows and one strand of cow hair
It’s forgivable to think you’ve gone completely wrong when you literally translate ‘jiu niu yi mao’ and come back with this phrase.
However, when you think about it, this phrase is a variation of several idioms found in the English language. Ever heard of ‘a needle in a haystack’ or ‘a drop in the ocean’? Both of these symbolise the task of finding or accounting for something small in the larger context.
It is the same for this chengyu, as finding one specific strand of cow hair among nine bovines is likely to be no easy task! While it’s not known why the phrase refers to nine cows in particular, the use of this animal highlights its cultural importance in China, with the region having domesticated cattle thousands of years ago and the ox also representing a year in the Chinese calendar.
Exert all your strength
The English equivalent of the Chinese ‘quan li yi fu’ is to ‘give it your all’.
While the tone of the message is friendly and encouraging, the context in which this is used in the Chinese language is generally quite formal and would often suit a business setting.
Another difference between the Western equivalent is that this chengyu is only used to describe an action that has yet to take place or is still underway, so it can’t be used in the past tense, i.e. ‘I gave it my all’.
We hope you enjoyed these few glimpses into interesting idioms in Chinese. Feel free to contact Rosetta Translation for any of your Chinese-English or English-Chinese translation needs. Our Shanghai office makes us perhaps THE experts for high-quality Chinese translations.
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