Five Chinese idioms about sheep

Chinese New Year

Mandarin Chinese idioms are vital to Chinese writing and to the speaking of Mandarin. As the Chinese New Year is approaching, here are some highly useful idioms that you can learn for this Chinese New Year of Sheep.

Wool Comes From the Sheep’s Back




  • Literal: Wool comes from the sheep’s back
  • Figurative: Nothing is for free.

Idiom origins: According to a Chinese fable, a government official in charge of the treasury promised his citizens a financial bonus at the end of the year. Everyone was very excited, except for one wise man who warned them that they whatever the official gave them came from the government treasury. Basically, the money they’re going to get, came from taxes that they paid anyway, so why should the people (sheep) be so happy when the bonus (wool) came from their own backs?

How to pronounce it in Chinese:yáng máo chū zài yáng shēn shàng

Mend the Fold After a Sheep is Lost




  • Literal: Mend the pen after sheep are lost
  • Figurative: You can always learn from your mistakes

Idiom origins: The King of Chu was a man who only indulged in pleasure all the time. His minister Zhuang Xin warned him to pay more attention to guarding his capital because he had many enemies. The king laughed and said: “There’s no need to worry, no one will take my power away.”

Zhuang felt the king was not responsible, so he asked the king permission to leave for the state of Zhao. The king granted Zhuang’s leave, and continued to indulge in luxuries. Within six months, the state of Qin sent troops to invade Chu, and did so easily because there was no guarded wall. The Chu king managed to escape to a smaller city named Yang and he remembered the last words of his minister and regretted not taking his advice. He invited Zhuang back and asked him for help.

Zhuang told the king a story (A fable within a fable!): A shepherd woke up one morning and found there was a hole in his pen. A few of his sheep escaped through the hole. He went off to chase the lost sheep forgetting about the hole. Luckily, the shepherd’s wife was smart and blocked the hole with her body. The shepherd saw it, and rushed back and mended the sheepfold.

“It’s unfortunate that Chu had lost a sizable stretch of land, but we did not lose it all. If Chu reforms now and strengthens itself, we still have a chance to get Chu back,” Zhuang said.

The king was pleased and took Zhuang’s advice and the next year Chu won back its whole territory.

How to pronounce it in Chinese:wáng yáng bǔ láo

Source (In Chinese):

A Sheep in a Tiger’s Skin




  • Literal: Having the heart of a sheep in the skin of a tiger
  • Figurative: Someone who impressive in appearance, but lacking in substance

Idiom origins: In Chinese culture, the tiger is the king of all non-mythical animals. During the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589 AD), there was a brave warrior named Yang Kan who was eight feet tall and very strong. The Wei emperor heard about Yang and said, “Is he really the tiger, or is he just pretending to be a tiger, But really a sheep inside?”

The Wei emperor invited Yang to his palace to test his skills

“You look like a tiger from the outside; You are strong and look like you know how to fight. But I would like to see what you have on the inside. Can you show me how strong you are and shout as loud as possible?” the emperor said.

Yang took the posture of a tiger on the ground, screamed, and it shook the whole palace. The emperor was surprised and said, “Very nice! You can represent Wei to fight other troops!”

However, in his first fight, Yang had never seen so many troops and got scared and refused to fight, choosing to hide in a tent and cry.

The emperor heard about Yang’s performance and got mad.

“The lives of thousands of people are still in your hands, how can you just hide in the tent and not fight?” the emperor said.

“I’ve never said I had the real ability to fight, just that I can perform well as a tiger,” Yang replied.

The emperor was extremely disappointed at Yang, and ordered to be killed. Before his execution the emperor said: “Next time, make sure you know what a person is like inside and out before making any decisions!”

How to pronounce it in Chinese:yáng zhì hǔ pí

Source (In Chinese):

To Hang a Sheep’s Head While Selling Dog Meat




  • Literal: To hang a sheep’s instead of dog meat
  • Figurative: To be dishonest; To let the buyer beware

Idiom origins: During China’s Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BCE), Duke Ling of the kingdom of Qi noticed that his concubines were all wearing different types of dresses. He felt that the women were dressed too feminine and ruined the overall image of his nation. He wanted his nation to look powerful and strong, so he ordered all women to wear men’s clothing. When other nations tried to invade Qi, they saw all the citizens dressed in men’s clothes and thought they were all men and very powerful. When the fighting began, they realized that a lot of the citizens were actually women, and they took over the kingdom and later used this idiom relish in their victory.

How to pronounce it in Chinese:guà yáng tóu mài gǒu ròu

Source (In Chinese):

Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing




  • Literal: A wolf in sheep’s clothing
  • Figurative: A wolf in sheep’s clothing 😉

Idiom origins: Once upon a time, there was a wolf that really wanted to eat some sheep. But every the wolf approached the sheep, the sheep always ran away. It took the wolf some time, but he came up with a perfect plan. He took a sheepskin from a dead sheep, and wrapped it around his body, easily entering the flock.

During the day, the wolf pretended just like any other sheep. At night, the wolf ate a lot of them. A few days later, the shepherd discovered the dead sheep, but had no idea how they were killed. Finally, one day after sunset, the shepherd saw the wolf drag another sheep out of the flock and begin to eat it. The shepherd got closer and discovered the wold in sheep’s skin. He quietly took a sharp knife and walked behind the wolf, and stabbed it.

How to pronounce it in Chinese: “pī zhe yáng pí de láng

Source (In Chinese):

Artwork by: Victoria Li