Chengyu Explanations: 马马虎虎

马马虎虎 usually describes a careless person or actions that are performed carelessly. The following post describes the meaning of this 成语 in detail.


Characters 马马虎虎
Pin Yin mǎ mǎ hū hū
Pleco Definition 1. careless; casual
2. not very good; passable; just so so
HSK Level

Original Story

The meaning of this 成语 dates back to the Song Dynasty (960-1272 AD). According to one version of the story, an artist was painting a tiger when his friend came and asked him to paint a horse. Instead of starting a new picture, the artist simply drew the body of a horse onto the tiger’s head he had already painted. When people asked what his picture depicted, he replied, “马马虎虎” (literally, ‘horse horse tiger tiger’).

马虎图.jpgAfterwards, the artist’s eldest son came and asked him what the painting depicted. The father told him it was a tiger. His younger son came along and asked him the same question. The father told him it was a horse.

Later, the elder son encountered a horse. Thinking it was a tiger, he shot the horse, 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, the younger son was eaten when he tried to ride it.

In grief, the father later wrote a poem:


Horse-tiger picture,
Horse-tiger picture,
Resembling both a horse and a tiger,
My eldest son shot dead a horse because of this picture,
My second-eldest son was eaten by a tiger because of this picture.
I burned the horse-tiger picture in my cottage,
I implore you, ladies and gentlemen: Don’t do what I did!


There are multiple variations of this legendary tale, but the modern meaning of 马马虎虎 describes careless people or actions which are performed carelessly.

Grammatically, 马马虎虎 can be used as an adverb, describing the careless or negligent manner of an action (e.g. 马马虎虎地做饭,马马虎虎地学习).

马马虎虎 can also be used as an adverbial compliment using 得 (e.g. 唱得马马虎虎, 写得马马虎虎). It may also be used as part of an adjectival phrase. (e.g. 马马虎虎的).

Some non-native learners of Chinese use 马马虎虎 to describe their mood (e.g. “How are you? I’m just so so”) but this usage is seldom used, if at all, by most native Chinese speakers. 马马虎虎 is usually used by native speakers to describe careless or negligent actions or people, not one’s mood.

Example Sentences

Some teachers prepare classes very carelessly. As a result, students don’t learn anything.

Careless people certainly won’t be successful.

Her husband always cooks carelessly. He nearly started a fire last time!

References and Further Reading

1. 成语词典 (新世纪版2011修订), p. 393.
2. New Practical Chinese Reader (2003) Textbook 2, p. 97.

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