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A Closer Look Into a Chinese Idiom 对牛弹琴(duìniútánqín)

Idiom or Chengyu ( 成语) is essential to a language. Idioms are expressions that have metaphoric meanings. People use idioms to express themselves creatively and genuinely.

We hear idioms every day – both in conversation and in the media. If used correctly, idioms are effective ways to put spice and color into a conversation. It can help you to explore the language in a much deeper and meaningful way. Idioms can also help you connect with native speakers more. After all, an idiom works like a mirror to a language. It reflects the culture and local contexts of a dialect. Learning the idioms of a language is essential to master and attain fluency. Having a good grasp of idioms means that you can understand the semantics of the vernacular masterfully. With that said, today we shall examine a Chinese idiom, 对牛弹琴 (duìniútánqín). 

对牛弹琴 (duìniútánqín) means, cast pearls before swine; preach to deaf ears; talk to a post; whistle jigs to a milestone. It is a Chinese idiom used when someone is engaging in a pointless conversation. It means to say that there is a huge gap of understanding between two people. For this reason, achieving comprehension is impossible. It’s like talking to a brick wall! This idiom indicates futile reasoning with stubborn people or talking to the wrong audience. 

To examine the idiom closely, let us start with its origin, bringing us back to ancient times. 

During the Warring States Period, there was a famous musician Gong Mingyi. Gong Mingyi can play the lute masterfully.

One fine day, as he was playing the lute indoors, Gong Mingyi saw a cow eating grass leisurely outside the window. He had a sudden whim to play some melodies for the cow. He first played the “Exercise of Qing Jiao” However, the cow paid no heed and kept eating grass with head lowered. He seemed to realize that the melody was too highbrow for the cow to understand.

And then he played another piece of joyful music, but the cow still kept its head down to graze the grass. Gong Ming Yi was so disappointed and started to question his ability. A passerby said to him, “It is not a matter of your ability. It’s because the cow can not understand music at all.”

The key learning point of this story is that there is a barrier that prevents two parties from effective communication. The situation in the story deems to explain a real-life scene where person A cannot communicate well with person B. 

The usage of this idiom might differ depending on the context. However, the focal premise must remain constant. That is, there is no comprehension between the speaker and the audience. To gain more understanding and mastery regarding this idiom, let us examine the examples below.

Gěi tāmen chànggē jiǎnzhí jiùshì duìniútánqín.


Singing for it is like talking to a brick wall.

Wǒ gàosù tā gōngzuò bùyào nàme pīnmìng, kě tā jiùshì bù tīng.


I’ve tried to tell him not to work so hard, but it’s like talking to a brick wall.

Gēn zhè wèi kèhù tán shēngyì, wǒ gǎnjué shì zài duìniútánqín.


Talking business with this customer, I felt like that it was casting pearls before swine.

Would you like to know more about Chinese idioms? Please click the links below.

A Chinese Idiom of Flourishing 蒸蒸日上

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