Duì niú tán qín / 对牛弹琴


Welcome to our new Curiosities of Chinese section. This is where we look at Chinese idioms, sayings and expressions and try to explain their meaning and composition. This is not an attempt to teach Chinese but just a fun look at some of the fascinating parts of this rich language.
The first in the series is one of my favourite idioms.


Have you ever had the feeling that the people you are talking to, or explaining things to, just aren’t on the same wave length as you? Or ever felt that the person you are talking to is so stubborn that they will never change their minds, whatever you say to them, or how ever right you might be?

The Chinese have the perfect idiom to describe such a situation: 对牛弹琴, or duì niú tán qín.

This literally means “playing the lute to a cow”. It’s a great way to describe that frustrating situation.

Picture taken from 100 Common Chinese Idioms and St Phrases by Sinolingua

Picture taken from 100 Common Chinese Idioms and Set Phrases by Sinolingua


means to or towards.


is a cow.


means to play a stringed instrument


is a general name for a stringed instrument but often refers to a traditional Chinese harp like instrument or lute.