Hold Your Horses! (Elementary)

“马 (mǎ)” means “horse.” Horses were very important animals in ancient China as they were the main method of transportation. In old times, people had a special kind of affection for their horses, which led to the creation of several idioms related to horse. To this day, many of these idioms are still used frequently, due in part to their vivid imagery.

Sherry and Karen are talking about a new colleague. Let’s have a look at their conversation. Why do you think are they bringing up horses?

Nǐ rènshi xīn lái de tóngshì ma?
Sherry:你  认识   新 来  的   同事   吗?
Do you know the new guy?

Dāngrán rènshi.
Karen:当然         认识。
Of course.

Tā zěnmeyàng?
Sherry:他   怎么样?
What do you think about him?

Tā hěn ài pāi mǎpì.
Karen:他  很  爱拍 马屁。
He’s a bootlicker.

From the English translation, you can get an idea of what this idiom means. Let’s break it down. 拍 (pāi) in Chinese means “to pat.” 马屁 (mǎpì) is the short form of 马的屁股 (mǎ de pìgu) which means “the hindquarters of the horse.” In ancient China, people always patted the backside of a visitor’s horse as the opening of a conversation. They used horses as an ice-breaker, and gradually, “good horse” became the only remark needed to strike up a conversation with a visitor. In fact, anything more than this was seen as excessive flattery. It’s no wonder then that Chinese people use 拍马屁 (pāi mǎpì) to call someone a bootlicker.

拍马屁 (pāi mǎpì) is a verb phrase. For example, in the above conversation, Karen says “他很爱拍马屁。(Tā hěn ài pāi mǎpì).” If someone is a bootlicker, you can call him or her 马屁精 (mǎpìjīng). For example, 她是个马屁精。(Tā shì ge mǎpìjīng. She’s a bootlicker.)


Tā ài pāi lǐngdǎo de mǎpì.
1. 他 爱 拍   领导    的 马屁。
He likes flattering the leaders.

Wǒ tǎoyàn nèige mǎpìjīng!
2. 我   讨厌    那个  马屁精!
I hate that bootlicker!

Another idiom related to horse is “下马威 (xiàmǎwēi).” Let’s take a look at our dialogue for more information.

Mike always chats in class which really annoys his new teacher. Let’s see whether he put Mike in his place or not.

Xīn lái de lǎoshī zhēn lìhai!
Kate:新  来 的  老师    真   厉害!
The new teacher is awesome!

Zěnme le?
Jerry:怎么   了?
What happened?

Tā gěi le Mike yíge xiàmǎwēi.
Kate:他  给 了 Mike 一个下马威。

Shénme shì xiàmǎwēi?
Jerry:什么      是下马威?
What do you mean by that?

“下马 (xiàmǎ)” in Chinese means to “get down from a horse,” and “威 (wēi)” means “a kind of power or prestige.” Put together, the meaning of 下马威 (xiàmǎwēi) is “to cow someone into submission.” You might be confused as to why getting down from a horse has turned into this idiom. Well, in ancient China, when government officials first arrived to the provinces or counties where they would be working, they showed their superior power to subordinates as soon as they stepped out of the carriage. Because of this, people began using 下马威 (xiàmǎwēi) to refer to “putting others in their place by flexing a little muscle.” So, the meaning of the whole sentence is “He put Mike in his place.”

下马威 (xiàmǎwēi) functions as a noun, and it is always used with the verb 给 (gěi), meaning “to give.”


Xīn jīnglǐ gěi le yuángōngmen yíge xiàmǎwēi.
新  经理  给了      员工们        一个  下马威。
The new manager showed his staff who’s boss.

Bié gěi wǒ xiàmǎwēi, wǒ bú pà!
别   给 我 下马威, 我  不 怕!
Don’t try and intimidate me. I’m not scared!

Can you handle these two idioms related to horse we discussed? Practice them with some exercises.


1. What’s the implied meaning of “拍马屁 (pāi mǎpì)” in Chinese language?____

A. to pat a horse’s backside

B. to flatter somebody

C. to hit a horse

2. What does “马屁精 (mǎpìjīng)” mean in Mandarin?__________

A. a bootlicker

B. horse cleaner

C. fashionable people

3. Which one of the following sentences uses 下马威 (xiàmǎwēi) correctly?_______

A. 他很爱下马威。(Tā hěn ài xiàmǎwēi.)

B. 他是下马威。(Tā shì xiàmǎwēi.)

C. 他给了我一个下马威。(Tā gěi le wǒ yíge xiàmǎwēi.)

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