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5 Most Practical Chinese Idioms with NUMBERS


The trend among many Mandarin teachers and resources is to treat studying 成语 (chéng yǔ) - idioms - as old fashioned. 

If you've never heard of 成语 (chéng yǔ), check out this blog post to learn more before you read on!

It's true that you don't need to learn 成语 (chéng yǔ) to speak Chinese, but there are a ton of practical, common idioms that can you can use in everyday life to help express yourself naturally, just as you use idioms in your own native language.

Our new series highlights fun, useful 成语 (chéng yǔ) that all feature Chinese numbers! 

1. 一石二鸟 (yì shí èr niǎo) - Two birds, One stone

is the same as one of the most common English idioms - "to kill two birds with one stone". The Chinese idiom "一石二鸟 (yì shí èr niǎo) - literally "one stone, two birds" means the same thing in Chinese as it does in English: to achieve two things with one action.

Instead of fumbling around trying to say, "We accomplished two things with one action" in Mandarin, just use this handy 成语 (chéng yǔ) just like you would in English!

* Note that in this idiom, 一 (yī) takes the 4th tone. The rule is:

• When followed by a 4th tone, 一 (yī) changes to 2nd tone (yí).
• When followed by any other tone, 一 (yī) changes to 4th tone (yì).

Watch this super-helpful live hangout where Yangyang explains all the Mandarin tone change rules:

2. 独一无二 (dú yī wú èr) - One of a kind

独一无二 (dú yī wú èr) means "One of a kind", and might literally be translated as "only one, no two". Try using this idiom when describing something unique, instead of relying on "很特别 (hěn tè bié) - very special." (Please note, the tone for 一 (yī) here is the first tone, this is a special case specific to this idiom.)

For example, you might use this idiom to describe someone you find fascinating, or explain your love for someone:

"对我来说她是独一无二的 (duì wǒ lái shuō tā shì dú yī wú èr de) - To me, she is one of a kind."

This idiom is really a poetic way to emphasize the uniqueness of just about anything. For example, if you are standing on the Great Wall, awestruck by its majesty, you might shout out:

"长城是独一无二的古迹 (cháng chéng shì dú yī wú èr de gǔ jì) - The Great Wall is one of a kind historical site!"

3. 三心二意 (sān xīn èr yì) - Three hearts, Two ideas

The third idiom in our 'Numbers Chengyu' series is "三心二意 (sān xīn èr yì)" which literally means "3 hearts, 2 ideas". It captures the feeling of wanting to do everything at the same time, but ending up doing nothing (or doing none of it well), and can loosely be translated as "of two minds about something" or "half-heartedly".

You might use this in the real world scolding a friend who is trying to tell a story and drive at the same time! You could say: 

"开车时一定不能三心二意,不然会很危险 (kāi chē shí yí dìng bù néng sān xīn èr yì bù rán huì hěn wēi xiǎn) - When you're driving, you can't be of two minds about it, otherwise it's dangerous!"

Another example is:

"他一边看电视,一边学习,整天三心二意的 (tā biān kàn diàn shì,  biān xué xí, zhěng tiān sān xīn èr yì de) - He's watching TV while studying, doing things half-heartedly all day."

4. 七上八下 (qī shàng bā xià) - 7 up, 8 down

This idiom is a really fantastic way to say you are feeling worried or agitated. "七上八下 (qī shàng bā xià)" literally means "7 up, 8 down".

We actually taught this idiom in our Chinese Characters Course, when we covered the character for "7" - 七 (qī)! Yoyo Chinese students can check out this lesson here

Next time you're feeling worried, try using this awesome expression instead of using boring old 担心 (dān xīn). For example, after taking a big test you might say:

"我心里七上八下地在等待着结果 (wǒ xīn lǐ qī shàng bā xià de zài děng dài zhe jié guǒ) - I'm waiting for the results right now, I can't help but be worried."

Or imagine one night you are worried because your partner is home late, you could say:

"这么晚了我女朋友还没回来,我心里七上八下的 (zhè me wǎn le wǒ nǚ péng you hái méi huí lai wǒ xīn lǐ qī shàng bā xià de) - It's so late and my girlfriend hasn't come back yet, I'm worried."

You might notice that both of these examples use "我心里 (wǒ xīn lǐ) - in my heart". This idiom is almost always preceded with 心里 (xīn lǐ), which is important to keep in mind when forming your own sentences with this 成语 (chéng yǔ).

5.  十全十美 (shí quán shí měi) - Ten all, Ten perfect

To say "perfect" in Chinese you could use 完美 (wán měi). But what if you REALLY want to emphasize how absolutely perfect something is... how do you say "perfect", but with a stronger feeling? 

In English we sometimes use the expression "a perfect 10", and there's a similar idiom in Chinese: 十全十美 (shí quán shí měi) - literally "10 all 10 perfect". 

It's a great, natural expression that's easy to use in a real conversation to describe something as perfect in every way. For example, after seeing a great movie, you might say: 

"这个故事有一个十全十美的结局 (zhè ge gù shi yǒu yí ge shí quán shí měi de jié jú) - This story has a perfect ending."

Or, imagine your friend receives some disappointing news. You might console her by saying: 

"世界上不存在十全十美的事情 (shì jiè shang bù cún zài shí quán shí měi de shì qing) - No perfect things exist in the world."

Try using these 成语 (chéng yǔ) today and see how idioms help you go beyond basic vocabulary and express how you feel in a more meaningful way.

Want more Chinese 成语 (chéng yǔ)?  Check out this blog post for ten more idioms!