Beware of “幺蛾子 (Yāo ézi)”! Call Someone On Their Bluffing

HSK 3 quiz
Learning fun Chinese slang which can be applied to, and be used in, a classroom or boardroom setting is one of my favorite things to teach in my Mandarin Chinese classes. One of these Chinese expressions which I find to be very useful is “幺蛾子 (yāo ézi).” Students enjoy the word and we use it sarcastically and jokingly when we want to express that something is a “strange/wicked/bad idea.”

The story behind the word “幺蛾子 (yāo ézi)” is an interesting one. “幺蛾子 (yāo ézi)” comes from a Chinese gambling game called Pai Gow, which is also known as make nine or card nine. In this game, each player is given one stack of tiles and must use them to form two “hands” of two tiles each. The maximum score for a hand is nine. One pip (point) is called “幺 (yāo).” Five pips is called “蛾 (é).” Adding these together, we get six pips, which ranks at the medium level, not exactly a “winning hand.” It is hard to win with this hand, so the player’s only option is to bluff. That is why “幺蛾子 (yāo ézi)” means unrealized tricks, something like teaching a fish to swim.
HSK 3 quiz

Let’s break it down:

幺蛾子 (Yāo ézi) = to create something out of nothing; tricks; wicked ideas.

幺 (Yāo) = one in spoken Chinese; the youngest one in a family, “幺 (yāo)” often follows “老 (lǎo)”, i.e. “老幺 (lǎo yāo).”

蛾子 (Ézi) = moth.

蛾 (É) = moth.

子 (Zǐ) = a common noun suffix as in “桌子 (zhuōzi) desk” or “椅子 (yǐzi) chair.”

Common structure:

Subject + 出 (chū) + 幺蛾子 (yāo ézi)

“幺蛾子 (Yāo ézi)” can be applied to different situations. Below are some examples and their suggested scenarios:

Scenario 1:

This is something that a teacher would say to the monitor before leaving a class full of naughty students.
Bié ràng tāmen chū shénme yāo ézi.
别    让   他 们   出    什   么  幺  蛾子。
Don’t let them play tricks.

Scenario 2:

When someone keeps making mistakes or coming up with wicked ideas.
Nǐ zěnme zǒng shì chū yāo ézi nē?
你  怎  么   总   是   出  幺  蛾子呢?
Why do you always create something out of nothing?

Scenario 3:

When someone puts forward a strange idea, or something that deviates from normal thinking, he or she may hear a response like this.
Nǐ yòu cóng nǎ’r xiǎng chūlái zhème yígè yāo ézi?
你  又    从   哪儿  想    出 来   这 么 一个 幺蛾子?
Where do you get these silly thoughts?

So, next time you have a few tricks up your sleeve, or want to warn others about some tricksters, you can use the Mandarin Chinese word “幺蛾子 (yāo ézi)!”
HSK 3 quiz
Tā cái shì nàgè ài chū ___ ézi de rén.
他  才 是  那个 爱出 ___ 蛾子的  人。
A. 么

B. 幺

C. 女

―Written by Becky Zhang―
Becky Zhang is a teacher at She has over eight years of experience teaching Mandarin Chinese to foreign students and promoting Chinese culture. She lives in Beijing but loves traveling to ancient Chinese villages. One day she’d like to be a tour guide in China!
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