The idiom 不翼而飞 (búyì érfēi) is interesting not only in that the sign 翼 is extremely cool looking, but also in that it’s literal meaning is almost identical to an English idiom with a completely different meaning. The translation is ”to fly without wings” (or even more literal with the proper word order, ”without wings but flying”), which in an English-speaking context would equal to a derogatory comment to someone who gets ahead of himself – similar to ”learn to run before you can walk”.

The Asian dragons manage to fly in spite of having no wings in many myths and traditions, but I don't think there's much of a connection to the idiom.

The Chinese meaning is quite different, however just as logical. The Chinese quite literally refer to something without wings that flies away, in other words something that vanishes very suddenly, for example a fad. It could refer to news or trends that appear and disappear very quickly, or something more permanent such as losing a possession or an unexpected death.

An aside: through a quick Google search I found a Westlife song called ”Flying Without Wings”, that seems to represent something in between the Chinese idiom and the English idiom I am acquainted with. The boy band instead use the phrase to express extreme happiness, in other words metaphorically flying from happiness, even though you haven’t got any wings:

”You’ll find it in the deepest friendship
The kind you cherish all your life
And when you know how much it means
You’ve found that special thing
You’re flying without wings“

This is part five of my series on Chinese idioms, read more here or check out all previous idioms here.
If you enjoy the idioms and want to read more, please go buy Pan Weigui’s book, it’s fairly cheap and definitely worth it.

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