Chéngyǔ (成语) are a type of traditional Chinese idiomatic expressions, usually consisting of four characters. In isolation and without explanation, Chinese idioms are often unintelligible. Thus, when students in China learn idioms as part of the classical curriculum, they also need to study the context from which the idiom was born. Oftentimes, idioms are intimately linked with the myth, story, or historical fact from which they were derived. Also, they do not follow the usual grammatical structure and syntax of modern Mandarin; instead they are highly compact.
Chengyu are widely used in classical Chinese, and many of them are still common in vernacular Chinese writing and in the spoken language today. There are abundant idioms related to animals. Here are 12 of them—you may also notice that they happen to feature the 12 'animals' of the Chinese zodiac.
鼠目寸光 (shǔmù cùn guāng)
Lit., "Rats can only see an inch of light." This is a metaphor for figurative short-sightedness.
(niú) ox, cattle
对牛弹琴 (duì niú tán qín)
Lit., "playing the zither for a cow." Because a cow wouldn't appreciate the subtleties of the music, this chengyu implies that something is a waste of time or effort. For instance, 跟他讲道理就是在对牛弹琴 (gēn tā jiǎng dàolǐ jiù shì zài duì niú tánqín)—trying to talk sense into him is just a waste of time.
骑虎难下 (qí hǔ nán xià)
Lit., "He who rides the tiger will find it hard to dismount." This idiom refers to getting oneself into a dangerous position or serious dilemma with no way to get out.
(tù) rabbit, hare
守株待兔 (shǒu zhū dài tù)
This idiom refers to waiting around hoping for success, similar to the sentiment behind "no pain, no gain." During the Warring States period, many people depended on their crops for a living. One day, a farmer found a hare that had died after running so quickly that it bumped into a tree-stump that it hadn't seen. The farmer thus decided to sit near the stump, waiting for another hare, instead of farming to make a living. Eventually, the farmer starved to death. Today, a common expression is 没人能靠守株待兔取得成功 (méirén néng kào shǒu zhū dài tù qǔdé chénggōng)—Nobody succeeds by watching the tree-stump for hares.
Lord Ye loved dragons so much that he decorated everything he owned with dragons, including the walls of his house. One day, a heavenly dragon descended from the heavens to see this homage itself. The dragon poked its head into the window, peering at Lord Ye and dragging its tail down the hall. Upon seeing the dragon, Lord Ye felt so scared that he ran away as fast as he could. Therefore, people concluded that Lord Ye was not fond of dragons at all. What he professed to love was what he actually feared most. Thus this idiom means to profess love for what one really fears, or what one does belies one's commitments.
Lit., to paint a snake with feet. Adding feet to a painting of a snake is superfluous, and this idiom refers to being superfluous and redundant.
An old horse knows the way—this idiom suggests that an old hand "knows the ropes."
挂羊头卖狗肉 (guàyángtòu màigǒuróu)
To sell dog meat and call it a sheep's head; this idiom can be applied to businesses that deceive customers by selling inferior goods while claiming that they are top quality.
猴 与 鸡
(hòu) monkey and (jī) chicken
Killing a chicken to teach a monkey a lesson—this idiom refers to making an example of somebody.
Foxes and dogs for friends. Comparing a person to a fox or a dog isn't a compliment, and this idiom refers to dubious friends or associates.
人怕出名猪怕壮 (rén pà chūmíng zhū pà zhuàng)
A man dreads fame as a pig dreads being fat. The fattest pigs are the first to be butchered, so no pig wants to be fat. Likewise, there's always a price to pay for fame, and therefore, in keeping with Chinese tradition, some people prefer to maintain a low profile.