Chinese idiom of the day: 噤若寒蝉 – as quiet as a cicada in winter

When thinking of Chinese turns of phrase or idioms, 噤若寒蝉 (jìnruòhánchán) is probably of the type that springs to mind. It literally means ”as silent as a cicada in winter”. Comparisons with plants or insects (like the cikada) is fairly sterotypical of East Asian languages like Chinese and Japanese, while they’re practically non-existent in most Western languages.

The last two words (寒蝉) put together mean ”a cicada in winter”, but as with many Chinese words they can mean several related things. In this case they cold also refer to the sound of cicadas in winter, as well as any mournful sound that is reminiscent of it (this is fairly common, the same is done with the sound of geese). The word 蝉 alone means ”cicada”, while 寒 means something like ”cold”.

The idiom is fairly clear in its meaning – to be dead quiet, for whatever reason. This especially covers being too scared to speak, for example because of hiding.

PS. Half way through the article I realised ”cicada” is spelt with a C and not a K. I’m still very disappointed, cikada looks much cooler than cicada. DS.


This is part three 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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