12 Chinese Zodiac Characters and Their Unusual Idioms

12 Chinese Zodiac Characters and Their Unusual Idioms

The 12 animals of the Zodiac are represented by Chinese zodiac characters. These characters represent the Chinese zodiac animals.

But you probably knew that right?

Below, we’ll explain each animal and its character. We’ll also show you a popular and often slightly unusual idiom for each zodiac animal.

Chinese Zodiac Characters

The Chinese Zodiac are referred to as 生肖 (shēng xiào).

In Chinese you might say:

他生肖属鼠
Wǒ shēngxiào shǔ shǔ
I was born in the year of the rat.

Literally “my zodiac born in the year of the rat.”

When referring animals of the zodiac in Chinese, only a single syllable is used.

So the Chinese zodiac character for Rat is not 老鼠 (lǎo shǔ), it’s 鼠 (shǔ).

Tiger, 老虎 (lǎohǔ) becomes 虎 (hǔ).

Rabbit, 兔子 (tùzi) becomes 兔 (tù).

Monkey, 猴子 (hóuzi) becomes 猴 (hóu).

Chinese Zodiac Story For Each Animal

If you haven’t come across Chinese idioms before, they are a collection of characters that tell a larger story.

Often they have a deeper meaning inferred only once you know the origin.

There are thousands of idioms in Chinese (and even idiom dictionaries!) so these 12 Chinese zodiac animal stories only scratch the surface.

Year of the Rat | 鼠 – shǔ

Year of the rat

鼠目寸光
shǔ mù cùn guāng

Rats’ eyesight is only an inch long.

This idiom is about the future and usually used to describe somebody.

People who only see the present don’t consider the future. If you only see as far as a rat, you’re not looking towards the future.

You are as shortsighted as a rat!

Year of the Ox | 牛 – niú

Italian Trulli

对牛弹琴
duì niú tán qín

Playing the lute at a cow.

The “lute” here is a classical Chinese stringed instrument. Playing music to a cow is pointless, it won’t understand!

“They will never understand you so it’s useless to talk to them. 对牛弹琴.”

Year of the Tiger | 虎 – hǔ

Year of the Tiger

放虎归山
fàng hǔ guī shān

Let the tiger go back to the mountain.

Although this is more like don’t let the tiger go back to the mountain.

Imagine for a moment you are an ancient Chinese farmer…

A tiger has come down from the mountains and eaten one of your sheep.

You’ve managed to capture the tiger, but your conscience has gotten the better of you.

Should you let him go?

No! Don’t let the tiger go back to the mountain, he’ll eat your sheep again if you do.

In a more modern context, this could be applied to criminals – don’t let them go, because they’ll go out and commit the crime again.

Year of the Rabbit | 兔 – tù

Year of the Rabbit

守株待兔
shǒu zhū dài tù

Keep watch at the tree stump, waiting for a rabbit.

This Chinese zodiac story is about a lazy guy in his field. A rabbit came and “BONK”, ran into a tree stump, killing itself.

So the farmer got a free rabbit.

Now the farmer keeps watch in front of the tree stump, waiting for the next rabbit to come and kill itself.

This Chinese zodiac story teaches us not to be lazy – if you want to be successful you have to work hard.

Don’t wait for the next rabbit to come along and land in your lap.

Year of the Dragon | 龙 – lóng

Year of the Dragon

乘龙快婿
chéng lóng kuài xù

Riding a dragon makes for a pleasing son-in-law.

The intended meaning here is that if you’re riding a dragon you must be pretty awesome.

It’s a metaphor for a wonderful son-in-law, so great it’s like he rides dragons.

The girl’s parents can show off with their friends “Hey! We’ve got a 乘龙快婿.”

We’ve got a really awesome son-in-law.

Year of the Snake | 蛇 – shé

Year of the Snake

蛇蝎心肠
shé xiē xīn cháng

Snake-scorpion heart.

Heart here is used in the sense that someone might have a good heart.

However, this idiom describes somebody’s heart as snake-scorpion: a venomous, black heart.

This is usually applied to a woman. If she is called 蛇蝎心肠, she must have done something incredibly terrible, like abandoning her child.

She has a heart fit for snakes and scorpions.

Year of the Horse | 马 – mǎ

Year of the Horse

马到成功
mǎ dào chéng gōng

Arriving war horses bring a swift success.

If you want to do something very important to you, your friends might wish you luck saying 马到成功.

May you have a speedy, swift and easy success!

This imagery refers to a stampeding charge of war-horses bringing a swift success in battle.

Year of the Ram | 羊 – yáng

Year of the Ram

顺手牵羊
shùn shǒu qiān yáng

Pick up a sheep on the sly.

That guy is a sheep thief.

He saw the opportunity and very sneakily made off with the stray sheep.

In the news, you might see something similar to this Chinese zodiac animal story: some guy 顺手牵羊. He stole something by taking advantage of an opportunity.

At school, teachers will also remind kids “Don’t 顺手牵羊. It’s bad!”

Year of the Monkey | 猴 – hóu

Year of the Monkey

猴年马月
hóu nián mǎ yuè

Monkey year horse month.

You may have noticed this is not a real point in time. You can slide in 猴年马月 when you don’t know how long something is going to be.

“Oh, man! We have to wait for 猴年马月.”

You can also use this to mean a long time ago. For example, one of your childhood friends reminds you of something and you say:

“I can’t remember that! It’s from 猴年马月.”

Year of the Chicken | 鸡 – jī

Year of the Chicken

杀鸡取卵
shā jī qǔ luǎn

Kill the chicken to get the eggs.

The implications of doing this are what this Chinese zodiac story is getting at. It’s similar to the message behind the year of the rat.

If you kill the chicken, you can get the eggs right now, but if you had fed it instead you could have had many many more eggs.

So if somebody does something particularly stupid you can squint your eyes judgementally and utter 杀鸡取卵.

Year of the Dog | 狗 – gǒu

Year of the Dog

狗血喷头
gǒu xiě pēn tóu

Dog’s blood spraying all over your head.

The graphic image of this story matches the ferocity of the action. This is usually applied when your mum would tell you off as a kid (or an adult!).

It’s like she’s spraying dogs blood over your head.

It’s used as a joke for an extreme torrent of abuse.

Year of the Pig | 猪 – zhū

Year of the Pig

猪朋狗友
zhū péng gǒu yǒu

Dog and pig friends.

If this was used against your friends (and probably you by association) it would mean you are all lazy incompetent sloths.

Usually used by parents or girlfriends – stop hanging out with your 猪朋狗友!

How Will You Use Your Chinese Zodiac Story?

Well, you’re now armed with a sling of Chinese zodiac inspired insults and compliments.

How will you use them?

This article was written by Scott who co-runs the Chinese learning YouTube, Fragrant Mandarin.

Click here to see more of their awesome Chinese learning materials like hacks on pronunciation and how to speak Mandarin.


Want to try some reading practice around those idioms? Try out these lessons: Playing the Lute to a Cow, Monkey Year Horse Month, Guarding the Tree Stump for Rabbits.

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