Depending on when you are reading this article, April Fools' Day has either already passed or is here! So are you ready for all of the tricking or being tricked? In celebration of this day, I felt inspired to share with you some idioms to describe foolish behaviour.


For this article, I will teach you five idiomatic expressions of a fool that most Chinese native speakers are familiar with. This way, once you’ve successfully pranked someone and say “April Fools!” you can also add a Chinese idiomatic expression to boot.


It is also good to know that idioms in Chinese can also be known as 成语 chéngyǔ. These five idioms have been passed down from generation to generation for over 2,200 years now.


Back in the dynastic era of China, the country was actually not unified under one banner. Multiple kingdoms vied for land and conquered one another for land and supremacy to rule. As such, peasants throughout each kingdom loved hearing stories about rival kingdom’s foolish acts. Such stories always seemed exaggerated and ridiculous, full of stereotypes. As time marched on, these stories morphed into more commonly known idioms. So below are five idioms that effectively describe the fool in all of us:






bá miáo zhù zhăng


A farmer wanted his seedlings to grow faster, so he pulled them a little bit. Of course, he messed them up.






kè zhōu qiú jiàn


A sword fell into the water when its owner sitting on a moving boat. Weirdly, this man pulled out a dagger and marked on the boat where his sword had fallen. And then he told his companions doesn't worry, after reaching the shore, he would search his sword at the marked place.






yăn ĕr dào líng


A thief wanted to steal a bell. But he feared that this would wake the owner, so he covered his own ears to do it. What a genius!






shŏu zhū dài tù


A farmer took a rest against a stump, thinking that farm work is tiring. Suddenly, a hare came from nowhere, dashed itself against the stump and broke off its neck. The farmer took it home and had a good meal happily. He began to think that it is terrific if get a hare each day in this way. So he decided to wait near the stump from now on.






qĭ rén yōu tiān


A man of Qi was haunted by the fear that the sky might fall. Well, maybe it can’t be called as a story.



All of these idiomatic stories sound ridiculous, right? But why are these outrageous stories handed down through the generations? I believe this is because these stories show the intrinsic nature of human beings -- namely our foolish nature. Think of these stories as the Chinese equivalent of ancient Greek tragedies. Let’s try to look at each of these five idioms more in-depth:


1. 拔苗助长 roughly means “pulling out the seedlings in order to help a plant grow quicker”. To make this in allegorical sense, we tend to spoil things with excessive enthusiasm.


Indeed, we tend to lack patience in all things [that we care about - and want to see results quickly]. But perhaps, this is because life hastily rushes past us if we remain idle. So the things we care about the most will be prone to an over enthusiasm and potential foolish behaviours.



2. 刻舟求剑 roughly means to mark where the boat is so that you can search for the sword at a later time. To make this in allegorical sense, we tend to make the exact same measures without taking into consideration any changes to the circumstances.


Strictly speaking, whenever we face a problem the only way we know how to handle the problem is through repeated action. Sometimes, even when we realize that we should change our approach according to circumstance, all we can do is refer to our accumulated experience in dealing with similar situations. This may, at times, be seen as foolish by others.


On a side note, it is worthy to mention that in Chinese culture, there is an extraordinary respect for history. So people tend to look to the past and old experiences in order to help solve new problems.



3. 掩耳盗铃 roughly means to cover your ears when stealing a bell.This allegorical sense means that we are victims of our own lies, especially when the reality is too hard to accept. Lying to ourselves may be considered shameful, and can be perceived as foolish.


We would try to convince ourselves of the lie by thinking it is helping us. We treat lying as a kind of self-protection.



4. 守株待兔 roughly means to stand by a tree stump waiting for a bunny to dash in front of you. This allegory means that we always foolishly hope for small probability “chance” events to happen repeatedly.



5. 杞人忧天 roughly means that men of Qi were afraid that the sky was about to fall on them. This allegory means that we always suffer from imaginary fears. And such imaginary fears lead to foolish actions that could have been mitigated.


This last idiom is unique because there is a backstory here. The word means Lycium - a kind of plant. The plant bears fruit which are smaller than the size of blueberries. Just like the fruit, the kingdom of encompasses a really small mass of land. One day, this small kingdom was hit by a giant falling boulder. Over half of the population was exterminated immediately. The survivors then abandoned their wasted land and drifted into other kingdoms.


Thus, the men of Qi now fears that the sky will fall on them stems from the traumatic fear experienced from that day. This belief is obviously irrational and foolish, but we can often find similar examples to use this idiom to describe others in similar circumstances of irrational fear.


My love for April Fools’ Day inspired me to write about these Chinese idioms to be able to express a person’s foolish behaviour. I hope that all of you can enjoy this holiday as well as my article! Please leave a comment below to tell me what you’d think of the article. And if you have any questions, just ask! Happy learning to you all!


Hero image by Matthew Hamilton (CC0 1.0)