Snake Idioms on a Plane

If you didn’t already know, it’s the year of the snake, but rather than talk about new year traditions or the Chinese zodiac, we’re just going to get down to business. Here’s some useful, as in commonly used, Chinese idioms to do with snakes.

The good thing about all of these idioms, is that if you already have a beginner to intermediate level of Mandarin vocabulary, then you should be able to guess the meanings without much help. That is, they aren’t mysterious idioms that require an in-depth knowledge of Chinese history to understand, which makes them easy to remember, and perfect for beginners, too.

The Head of a Tiger and Tail of a Snake

虎头蛇尾(虎頭蛇尾)

Pinyin: hǔ tóu shé wěi
English: to start off strong but finish weak, “tigers head, snakes tail”

An excellent idiom, one you can really visualise. The strong head of a tiger followed by the slim weak body of a snake.

学中文为了避免虎头蛇尾要持续努力(學中文為了避免虎頭蛇尾要持續努力)

Xué zhōngwén wèile bìmiǎn hǔtóushéwěi yào chíxù nǔlì

Learning Chinese needs continued effort, to avoid starting off strong and finishing weak

The example above is a little strange in English, so here’s one that sounds more natural in English:

公司股票价今天虎头蛇尾(公司股票價今天虎頭蛇尾

Gōngsī gǔpiào jià jīntiān hǔtóushéwěi

The company’s stock value started strong but finished weak today

Words of a Buddha, Heart of a Snake

佛口蛇心(佛口蛇心)

Pinyin: fó kǒu shé xīn
English: two faced, “Buddha’s mouth/words, snake’s heart”

This idiom shows a negative perception of the snake – to have the good words of a Buddha, but the evil heart of snake.

我不知道他说的是真诚还是佛口蛇心(我不知道他說的是真誠還是佛口蛇心

Wǒ bù zhīdào tā shuō de shì zhēnchéng háishì fókǒushéxīn

I don’t know if he’s being sincere of two-faced

To Beat the Grass and Scare the Snake

打草惊蛇(打草驚蛇)

Pinyin: dǎ cǎo jīng shé
English: to alert an enemy of your presence, give yourself away, “beat grass, scare snake”

On first look, seeing the inclusion of 惊, you’d be forgiven for thinking this meant to scare an enemy away. Though it actually means to alert an enemy to your presence.

要聪明一点,材不会打草惊蛇(要聰明一點,材不會打草驚蛇

Yào cōngmíng yīdiǎn, cai bù huì dǎcǎojīngshé

You’ve got to be smart to not give yourself away

Here’s a bonus word that contains the snake character, not an idiom, but a word I find interesting nonetheless:

蛇头(蛇頭)

Pinyin: shé tóu
English: a human smuggler, someone who helps people smuggle themselves in to, or out of, a country

If you know of any other interesting idioms, or words, that use the character for snake then you know what to do.

  • Martijn

    Great new idioms to learn! “Head of a Tiger and Body of a Snake” seems wrong though. My dictionary makes it “Tigers Head, Snake’s Tail” ; with 尾 being tail it seems a better translation.

    • Hi Martijin, Yes ‘tail’ is correct, I’ve updated the post above. Among ‘tail’, 尾 also means rear, final remainder etc.

  • krist zhang

    Here is an other idiom 人心不足蛇吞象 (rén xīn bù zú shé tūn xiàng) describe the man is too greedy as a snake want to eat an elephant.