Did you know… what “a pig in a poke” means? Animals in Metaphor in Chinese

The British expression ‘a pig in a poke’ refers to something bought without having first been assessed – You should not buy something without checking it first.

The use of animals in metaphor appears in almost every language. The history, the customs, the faith, and the legends as well as the values of a particular culture are revealed directly or indirectly in these metaphors.

Chinese proverbs surrounding animals sometimes share similarities to their Western counterparts, e.g. “Smart like a fox” or “Strong as a lion”. The word “goose bumps” is slightly varied in Chinese and called 鸡皮疙瘩 (chicken skin bump). Pigs are mostly mentioned in a derogatory fashion by Chinese, British, or German language speakers alike.

However, a Chinese would probably be confused if he was called a “party lion [Partylöwe]” by a German, while a German would not be annoyed when a Chinese would call her a “tigress” (Chinese: 母老虎 angry or quarrelsome woman). And the image and usage of a “dragon” is quite different in Western countries and in China.

Here are some common Chinese phrases or proverbs with animal metaphors. First, guess the meaning yourself. Be creative and have lots of fun!

  1. 一朝被蛇咬,十年怕井绳 “Once you are bitten by a snake, you have ten years of fear of every rope.”
  2. 打 出头鸟 出头鸟 “The bird that flies first will be shot down.”
  3. 鸡毛蒜皮 “Chicken feathers and garlic bowls.”
  4. 对牛弹琴 “Playing the lute for a cow.”
  5. 狐假虎威 “The fox uses the mask of the tiger.”
  6. 画龙点睛 “When you paint a dragon, dot his eyes last.”
  7. 井底之蛙 “A frog in the well.”
  8. 狗拿耗子 “Like a dog who wants to catch mice.”


  1. Burnt child shuns the fire.
  2. The first person who has the courage to risk something will suffer.
  3. A trifle not worth mentioning.
  4. To cast pearls before swine.
  5. Use the power of another to impress others.
  6. Reference to Chinese-style communication: The most important part is delivered last.
  7. A man with a limited horizon.
  8. To stick one’s nose in other people’s affairs-