Impress Everyone with These Chinese Number Related Idioms From One to Ten Thousand
Idioms are expressions that don’t have a direct literal translation. They’re like riddles—to understand them, you need to understand the context as well as the words.
They’re one of the most fun parts of learning a language because they give you a window into the culture as well.
What are Chinese Idioms?
Chinese is a very complex language and is filled to the brim with idiomatic expressions.
Chinese idioms (aka. 成語, chéng yǔ) are typically four characters that together express a figurative meaning. They have been woven together over thousands of years from ancient myths, tales, philosophical texts, and poetry. Many represent longer stories that are condensed into succinct characters to depict a part of the narrative.
You’ll hear them everywhere, from regular conversation to Chinese historical, palace dramas on TV. All Mandarin speakers know some chéng yǔ, but using them in daily conversations can help you stand out and appear eloquent and cultured!
We’ve collected some Chinese idioms that start with numbers—from one to ten thousand. These are the perfect place to start because the numbers can serve as a mnemonic device, make them easier to learn. Let’s get started!
13 Number Related Chinese Idioms
1. yī luò qiān zhàng (一落千丈)
Literal translation: One fall, a thousand feet.
Figuratively, this saying means that one mistake or fault can result in disastrous consequences. For instance, “he made a wrong move and his performance has yī luò qiān zhàng since then.”
2. èr huà bù shuō (二話不說 )
Literal translation: Second word, not said.
This saying means to act quickly without saying another word. Basically, without delay or without further ado.
3. sān xīn èr yì (三心二意)
Literal translation: Three minds, two intents.
This one means being half-hearted, being of two minds, or being hesitant. It is often used to describe someone who has difficulties focusing on something or who is indecisive.
4. sì miàn bā fāng (四面八方)
Literal translation: Four sides, eight directions.
This one is similar to the English idiom “four corners of the Earth,” it means from all around, from far and near, or in all directions. For instance, “the enemy surrounded them from sì miàn bā fāng.”
5. wǔ yán liù sè (五顏六色)
Literal translation: Five colors, six colors.
This saying is used to describe something as very colorful, but it can also refer to something that has a variety of devices or patterns. For instance, “rainbows are wǔ yán liù sè.”
6. liù gēn qīng jìng (六根清淨 )
Literal translation: Six roots, peaceful.
This idiom makes a reference to the six roots of sensations in Buddhism—the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. It suggests that these are peaceful, pure, or clean. In other words, it describes a sense or state of peacefulness that is free of desires.
7. qī zuǐ bā shé (七嘴八舌 )
Literal translation: Seven mouths, eight tongues.
This saying is somewhat is similar to the English idiom of “at sixes and sevens,” which means confusion of disarray. The Chinese version is used to refer to a situation that is noisy, in which many people are talking at once, or that is full of lively discussion.
8. bā miàn líng lóng (八面玲瓏 )
Literal translation: Eight sides, exquisite/delicate.
This one is a bit more complex because its meaning has shifted over time. Originally, it was used to describe a spacious and well-lit area. Now, it is more often used to describe someone who is diplomatic, smooth, and adept in establishing social relations.
9. jiǔ niú yī máo (九牛一毛 )
Literal translation: Nine cows, one strand of cow hair.
This idiom is used to refer to something very small that you wouldn’t notice. It’s very visual: The idea is that you would hardly notice a single strand of cow hair among nine cows.
10. shí quán shí měi (十全十美 )
Literal translation: Ten, entirety, ten, beauty.
This idiom is used to describe something that is flawless and perfect. You can also use it to describe a person—it’s a compliment!
11. bǎi nián hǎo hé (百年好合 )
Literal translation: Hundred years, good union.
This idiom is often used to congratulate couples at weddings. It’s a wish that they have a harmonious union—not just for a hundred years, but forever!
12. qiān zhēn wàn què (千真萬確 )
Literal translation: Thousand real, ten thousand true.
This idiom is used to emphasize that something is really, surely, absolutely true. Use it to underscore how confident you are with what you are presenting!
13. wàn wú yī shī (萬無一失 )
Literal translation: Ten thousand, not one mistake.
This idiom is used in a similar way to how we might say something is “foolproof” in English. You use it to express that you are very confident that there is no way something will go wrong or fail. The idea is that even if something would happen ten thousand times, there wouldn’t be a single failure or mistake.
Learn Mandarin with Pimsleur!
Idioms are a fantastic way to learn any language (check out our other articles on idioms in Portuguese, Spanish, or around the world!) but they’re an especially good way to learn Mandarin Chinese. They can help you see how closely expressions are tied to Chinese culture and history.
Now it’s your turn! Try to start dropping these Chinese idioms with numbers into everyday conversation to practice speaking in Mandarin. Your friends will be impressed!