Why Does “Horse Horse Tiger Tiger” Mean “So-So” in Chinese?

Chengyu Stories: Why does 马马虎虎 (mǎmǎhūhū) mean “so-so” in Mandarin?

OK let’s reveal all…

While studying Chinese, you will learn a lot of 4 character based idiomatic expressions, alluding to a story or historical quote.

These set phrases are called 成语 chéngyǔ and they are still common in the written and spoken language today.

Among the best-known Chinese chéngyǔ, 马马虎虎 (mǎmǎhūhū) is considered the easiest and the funniest one.

What is Mamahuhu? A famous Chinese Chengyu
What is Mamahuhu? A famous Chinese Chengyu

This expression means “Horse horse tiger tiger”. However, despite its literal translation, this idiom has two main meanings:

  1. It can describe a careless person or actions that are performed carelessly
  2. It can also mean “so-so”.
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Do you know the story behind Mamahuhu…?

Once upon a time, there was a painter.

One day the painter was drawing a tiger when a man came to him and asked to have a horse picture instead.

Unwilling to start a new painting, the artist just randomly added a horse body under the tiger head. 

Chinese Zodiac Animals - Tiger
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When the customer saw it he found it weird and left so the painting was hung in the family living room.

In the following days, the artist’s eldest son came and asked his father what the painting depicted.

The artist said: “That’s a tiger!”.

Afterward, the younger son came along and asked him the same question, but, this time his father said it was a horse.

Later on, the elder son saw a horse….

Thinking it was a tiger, he killed it, incurring costs for the father who had to pay the horse’s owner for damages. The younger son then encountered a tiger.

Mistaking it for a horse, he died in the attempt to ride it. From then on, everybody called the painter Mr. Horse-Tiger.

Nowadays the term is used to describe someone who is careless or a situation which is just “so-so” or ‘not bad’.

Examples of Mamahuhu in action

Mǎmǎhūhū - Why does it carry this meaning?
Mǎmǎhūhū – Why does it carry this meaning?

Zuìjìn zěnme yàng?
How are you these days?

Tā de lùnwén wǒ zhǐshì mǎmǎhǔhǔ de kànle yīxià
I merely glanced over her thesis.

In Summary Mamahuhu means…

Literally, “Horse horse tiger tiger”. The actual meanings are two fold

  1. A careless person
  2. So-so / not so bad
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Chinese Chengyu FAQ’s

What is the English translation of mǎmǎhūhū?

Translated directly to English mǎmǎhūhū translates to Horse Horse Tiger Tiger.

What is a Chengyu?

Chengyu is a four character idiom in Chinese. These are quite awkward to directly translate to English.

Imagine the other way around trying to translate an English idiom such as “water off a ducks back” to another language. Only in context and understanding of the idiom does it make sense, the same is said of Chinese Chengyu.

Are Chengyu used in everyday speech?

Yes, Chengyu are used all the time, just like idioms would be in English. It’s often said to reach a proper level of fluency in Chinese you’d need to master at least 300 Chinese Chengyu.

Are all Chinese Chengyu just four characters long?

A large number are but not all Chengyu. Some extend to as long as eight characters.

A common saying we use at LTL is the popular 好好学习天天向上 which literally translates to “good good study, day day up”, meaning to keep studying hard to strive towards your goals.

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    Irene Magnosi , Student Advisor

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