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Cows and Pockets: 10 Chinese Idioms for AAPI Heritage Month

Posted on May 01, 2023

The Chinese idiom "Nine cows and one strand of hair" means . . ? (Image by Amber Kipp on Unsplash.)

Pop quiz: What does the Chinese idiom "Nine cows and one strand of hair" mean? If you don't yet know, you're not alone—non-English cultures can sometimes get short shrift in U.S. schools, but that is slowly beginning to change.

In 2021, the Chinese-American memoirist, journalist and translator Wenguang Huang made virtual classroom visits to speak with Chinese-heritage students at Brooklyn's FDR High School. His passionate advocacy of Chinese culture, and his discussion of the ways in which he uses Chinese idioms in his own work, inspired one of those students to research and write about ten idioms that may be new to English-language readers.

Read on to find out the meaning of nine cows, a strand of hair, hands in pockets, and more. For pronunciations, click the Chinese writing.—Eds.

  1. "不经一事,不长一智": Wisdom comes from experience. This means that unless people go through some sort of situation, they will never learn. Every human being learns and grows up while going through either problems or good stuff.
  2. "心血来潮": Spur of moment. This means to want to do some specific thing all of a sudden. This idiom came from when a high tide occurs, meaning "an impulse."
  3. "避而不见": To avoid meeting someone. This means to not see a person on purpose. The choice is on you: you can choose whether or not to meet this person.
  4. “万事开头难”: First steps are always the hardest steps, meaning that nothing will start out easy. It’s like when people just start their own business, there will always be consequences waiting for those people to to later resolve.
  5. “一无所有”: To have nothing in life. This means you have nothing left. You can use this word when someone has hurt you and taken everything from you and you couldn’t do anything about it.
  6. “笑里藏刀”: A dagger hidden behind a smile. This idiom is describing what happens when someone's smile is sarcastic. The dagger is meant to stab you and the smile is just like the sheath of the dagger.
    A man who has his hands in his pockets will . . . (By Chuttersnap on Unsplash.)
  7. “手整天插在口袋里的人过分自信”: A man who has his hands in his pockets will feel cocky all day. When a person has both of his/her/their hands in their pockets, it is a way to express their confidence. Another meaning of this idiom is that a person who has his/her/their hands in their pockets doesn't show much respect.
  8. “学到老”: Learn until you’re old. This means that it is never too late to learn. We learn things every single day until the day of our death.
  9. “九牛一毛”: Nine cows and one strand of hair, meaning that a situation or thing is easy-peasy. Just like in America, we have this idiom, “It is a piece of cake,” which also means very easy.*
  10. “兵来将挡,水来土掩”: When soldiers come, the generals fight back; when a flood comes, the soil will stop it. This means that there is always a solution to a problem. No matter what happens, there is always a way out.

Words Without Borders would like to thank the staff members at FDR High School, and especially Jiamian Wang, Leighton Suen, and Elizabeth Messman, for their collaboration on the workshops. The workshops were supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

If you are an NYC educator interested in organizing a similar program, please let us know on the Contact page.

*After this post was re-published in 2022, a reader wrote in to suggest a different definition for this phrase: "a drop in the ocean"—Eds.