The use of animals in Chinese idiomatic expressions stem from stories told throughout history and play a huge role in providing fun and interesting symbolism.
Horses tend to symbolize speed, as in 马到成功(mǎ dào chéng gōng), “to gain immediate success”, and tigers represent courage, as in 虎口拔牙(hǔ kǒu bá yá), which literally translates to “pulling a tooth from a tiger’s mouth” meaning to brave the greatest danger.
Generally most animals have a fixed characteristic in Chinese culture, however, often times some symbolisms can be met with a bit of irony, for example 马马虎虎(mǎ mǎ hǔ hǔ), literally “horse horse, tiger tiger”, which means something is only satisfactory or “so-so”. 马马虎虎 is one of the easiest and most fundamental idiomatic expressions in all of Chinese. So from now, if one asks your opinion on something you weren’t too crazy about, you can reply with 马马虎虎.
There are many more examples of animals in Chinese expressions, here are three to name a few!
duì niú tán qín
"Playing a lute to a cow"
Cows, bulls, and oxen are known for being very hardworking and diligent and are often associated with arduous labor. With that being said, it’s very likely that all of that intense work wouldn’t make them the most “cultured” in the animal kingdom. With such little sophistication, it may be easy for a lot of things to go right over their head and they without a doubt would be unable to appreciate the beauty of classical music or a symphony. So, the phrase 对牛弹琴 can be used when something being said is falling on deaf ears, and no matter how the many times the speaker repeats themselves, they still feel like they’ve had better conversations with a brick wall.
Gēn nǐ shuōhuà tài fèijìngle, jiǎnzhí shì duìniútánqín.
Talking to you is so tiring, it’s simply like casting pearls before swine.
Tā nàme mùnè de nánrén, gēn tā shuō làngmàn, gēnběn jiùshì duìniútánqín.
He’s such a dork, talking to him about love is just like talking to a wall.
bèn niǎo xiān fēi
"The clumsy bird must fly first"
Let’s admit, we can’t all be good at everything. Sometimes we have to accept, and even poke at our own shortcomings. This phrase is typically used when one is in a situation that they know they’ll have to work harder and sometimes earlier than everyone else in, even just to stay afloat or just pass the threshold. As the only non-native Chinese speaker in my Bachelor’s program, I can speak from personal experience that I know a lot about being a“笨鸟”. For instance, during finals’ season I will have to work twice as hard to do only half as well as my other classmates.
Tā suīrán bù zěme cōngmíng, dànshì kàozhe bènniǎoxiānfēi zuìhòu qǔdéle chénggōng.
Even though he’s not the brightest, he started earlier and worked harder, and thus has been extremely successful.
Māmā wèn tā wèishéme yào zǎoliàn, tā huídá “bùshì yào bènniǎoxiānfēi ma?”
His mother asked him why he wants to settle down so soon, he simply answered, “the slow should start early right?”
gǒu gǎi bù liǎo chī shǐ
"A dog can’t stop itself from eating sh*t"
Old habits are hard to break and some people will never change. You know those people that no matter how many times they screw up, they’ll just never learn their lesson. If you ever encounter such a person, you’ll know exactly how to put them in their place.
Tā zhège rén jiùshì gǒu gǎi bùliǎo chī shǐ! Chūle jiānyù yǐhòu tā yòu kāishǐ tōu dōngxīle.
That guy will never change! He started stealing again right after he got out of prison.
Yòu xǐhuān shàngle nàgè zhā nán? Tā jiù gǒu gǎi bùliǎo chī shǐ!
She’s back together with that jerk again! She will never learn.
Do you know any other silly Chinese idioms that involving animals?