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Is there a Chinese idiom for "tilting at windmills"?

This expressions stems from "The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha". In that book, Don Quixote attacks windmills, incorrectly (and absurdly) believing them to be giants.

From Wikipedia:

Tilting at windmills is an English idiom which means attacking imaginary enemies. The word “tilt”, in this context, comes from jousting.

The phrase is sometimes used to describe confrontations where adversaries are incorrectly perceived, or to courses of action that are based on misinterpreted or misapplied heroic, romantic, or idealistic justifications. It may also connote an importune, unfounded and vain effort against confabulated adversaries for a vain goal.

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In case there are Chinese people who haven't read Don Quixote, the expression means something like - to attempt to accomplish something that is absurd, and irrelevant, while being dubious to the fact that the task you are trying to accomplish is, in fact, absurd and irrelevant. –  user43633 Oct 18 '13 at 14:57
    
From the existing answers and comments, we can conclude there is not a single Chinese counterpart which matches all characteristics of the English phrase. It has to be translated differently according to the context. –  NS.X. Oct 21 '13 at 9:46

4 Answers 4

The closest I can find is 水中捞月 (shuǐ zhōng lāo yuè). From 汉典:

到水中去捞月亮。比喻去做根本做不到的事情,只能白费力气。

Trying to scoop up the imaginary moon from its reflection in the water. That is, trying to do something in vain or making a futile effort.

If you want to emphasize on the physical effort, 以卵击石 (yǐ luǎn jī shí) might be better:

拿蛋去碰石头。比喻不估计自己的力量,自取灭亡。

Using an egg to hit the stone. Overestimating one's ability and courting certain "death". The death here usually refers to failure.

I am not sure if you will be able to find an idiom that matches all the characteristics in the English idiom.

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I think you are looking for 螳臂当车. Note that in acient Chinese, 当 has the same meaning as 挡. It is from a story that a mantis tried to stop a carriage. Alternatively, you can use 蚍蜉撼树. More abstractively, you can use 不自量力.

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I feel there's some subtle meaning of "tilt at windmills" that the idioms in this answer haven't covered. But I can't tell what it exactly is ... –  Stan Oct 18 '13 at 18:08
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@Stan I think the difference is the original idiom has strong associations to the book, that is the absurdness and pathetical-ness from the surrealistic story. To convey that, the book has to be mentioned, like 堂吉诃德式的不自量力. –  NS.X. Oct 18 '13 at 18:28
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The full story of the Mantis seems to be an admonishment to not think your abilities greater than they actually are. Don Quixote is not falsely believing himself to be more powerful than he is--he falsely believes the windmills are giants! –  Stumpy Joe Pete Oct 18 '13 at 18:29
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I agree that this answer seems to lack the absurd part. If I'm not mistaken, in the Chinese idiom, the goal can be reasonable and praiseworthy, it's just way beyond someone's reach. In the English idiom, however, the entire endeavour is misguided, it's not mainly about if you can win against the windmills or not, it's about the fact that you're fighting windmills. –  Olle Linge Oct 19 '13 at 0:51

Attacking windmills, being Don Quixote's most well-known episode, is also perhaps the best example in the novel of the word quixotic; that is, the two share the same meaning.

Therefore, you could sometimes use the direct Chinese translation of "quixotic": 堂吉诃德式. Don Quixote is well known in the West, not as much in the Sinosphere, but in intellectual circles you may stand a good chance of being understood. For example, take this article title:

张跃远大“财富国” 堂吉诃德式的偏执生存 (中国经济周刊)

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I guess 无的放矢/庸人自扰/故作姿态 might be among the options for "tilt at windmills".

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Hello all, "tilt at windmills" basically means trying to fight a losing battle, running against the enemy - or a solid brick wall - again and again, without being able to gain anything. –  user3271 Oct 18 '13 at 20:48
    
Wiki says this: Tilting at windmills is an English idiom which means attacking imaginary enemies. The word “tilt”, in this context, comes from jousting. The phrase is sometimes used to describe confrontations where adversaries are incorrectly perceived, or to courses of action that are based on misinterpreted or misapplied heroic, romantic, or idealistic justifications. It may also connote an importune, unfounded and vain effort against confabulated adversaries for a vain goal. –  孤影萍踪 Oct 18 '13 at 22:06

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