The film title Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (臥虎藏龍/卧虎藏龙) apparently is an idiom describing a place or situation that is full of unnoticed masters. Is this phrase actually used in speech, and if so, how? I.e. Is is treated as an adjective, like "这里很卧虎藏龙", as a noun, like "这里有卧虎藏龙" or "这里有很多卧虎藏龙", or is it used in some other way?

  • It's an idiom (成语). Go look up a 成语词典 Oct 19, 2023 at 2:09
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    这里卧虎藏龙 is the only correct one, all your examples are wrong
    – Tang Ho
    Oct 19, 2023 at 2:13

5 Answers 5


Although we can assign "grammatical categories" to idioms(成语), in general they do not freely appear in syntactic locations that expect phrases of that category. Hence "这里很卧虎藏龙" and others all sound ungrammatical. In studying idioms it's important to pay attention to the typical structures in which they are used.

Here are some exemplars from idiom dictionaries that are immediately available to me.

新华成语大词典 p. 158

新华成语大词典 藏龙卧虎

汉语成语源流大辞典 p. 138

汉语成语源流大辞典 藏龙卧虎

From these exemplars we can observe:

  1. It can be used to describe a place: 藏龙卧虎之地;藏龙卧虎的地方
  2. Colloquially we may omit 是 and 的地方: 这北京城,藏龙卧虎。
  3. It can be used to describe a person as well: 藏龙卧虎之辈
  4. It can be used as an adjunct, to describe the status of a person: 藏龙卧虎,应该待时而动。
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    The main reason the examples given in the question all sound ungrammatical is precisely that they don’t fit the grammatical category of the idiom: it’s a verb phrase (well, two in parallel). You’re right that as a 成语, it cannot appear freely in syntactic locations that expect verb phrases; but all the syntactic locations where it appears are ones where verb phrases are expected/allowed. In fact, it’s sufficiently transparent that you can modify the verbs to create constructions like 卧着虎藏着龙. Oct 20, 2023 at 10:42
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I think you have a point. As native speakers we are almost never taught about grammatical issues of chengyu. Note the lack of grammar discussion in the dictionaries I cited. My general approach to them is still to only use them in structures that are close to existing usages, and not care about deep theoretical issues of syntax. Oct 20, 2023 at 18:33

臥虎藏龍 is an idiom, a phrase. so rather than treating it as a part of speech treat it as its own unit-- just like in english an idiom "take it with a grain of salt" is its own unit, not an adjective or noun or whatever. And you just insert it into a sentence as needed for conveying the meaning. Here are a few example uses:

此地臥虎藏龍英雄薈萃。 in this place there are crouching tigers hidden dragons and many heroic people gather.

這場比賽選手個個表現非凡真可謂臥虎藏龍。Every single contestant at this sports meet excels, truly a bunch of crouching tigers hidden dragons.

Note this phrase has many variations like 盤龍臥虎、臥虎、藏龍臥虎 etc. they all have the same meaning and use (◐‿◑)

  • For the second example, I noticed this pattern "真可谓"+"成语" is a fairly common one. Oct 20, 2023 at 8:36
  • ‘Take it with a grain of salt’ is an idiom, but it is also a verb phrase. You cannot just “insert it into a sentence as needed” – you have to treat it as a verb phrase and conjugate the main verb accordingly. Similarly, 卧虎藏龙 is also a verb phrase and should be treated accordingly. Oct 20, 2023 at 10:24
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I don't necessarily disagree. A phrase is its own unit, and is different from a regular noun or verb. I think "insert it as needed" covers the idea of making sure it properly fits there, especially as in chinese there is no conjugation, and this can be a verb or adjective or noun depending on the sentence (like many chinese terms). I am glad you added a comment so we can didcuss it for extra clarity in case though (◐‿◑)
    – zagrycha
    Oct 20, 2023 at 16:14

You're almost there with the example "这里很卧虎藏龙". So, roughly you can use it as an adjective. However, the conventionally established usage is to omit the adverb of degree 很 ("very"). Or, in rare cases where you really want to emphasize it, you can say 很是 (exaggeratedly stressed, literally = "very is") as an adverb of degree, although you don't need adverbs before the idiom. That's mostly because this idiom is already emphasizing the ultimate degree.

Try these sentences, especially feel the stress patterns:

  • ✓ 这 里 卧↓ 虎 藏↓ 龙
  • ✓ 这 里 很↓ 是↓ 卧 虎 藏 龙
  • × 这 里 很↓ 卧 虎 藏 龙
  • × 这 里 很↓ 卧↓ 虎 藏↓ 龙

If I have adequately expressed my idea, you should feel something not correct with the rhymes in the last two sentences.

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    You cannot use it as an adjective, not even roughly – the fact that you cannot use it with 很 is good evidence of that. It’s a compound verb phrase containing two parallel verb phrases ([verb + subject] + [verb + subject]), and it acts like a verb phrase: 这里卧虎藏龙 structurally means ‘here tigers crouch and dragons hide’. Also, what are the down-pointing arrows supposed to indicate? Oct 20, 2023 at 10:31
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Your point is interesting. I wanted to explain in the answer, but it is too long. In brief, if 卧 and 藏 are verbs, how do you explain why verbs can go before subject in Chinese? Actually, it should be a combination of two causative forms and pivotal structures. With all that said, I agree that "roughly ... adjective" is not precise. I wanted to align Chinese idioms to Part-of-Speech in terms of the original question "Is it treated as an adjective". The down-pointing arrows indicate stress.
    – LI Bing
    Oct 20, 2023 at 12:13
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    The subject appearing after its verb is not unusual in Mandarin – in fact, it’s mandatory in presentative sentences (sentences with no topic and no definite or generic noun phrase), which is exactly what 卧虎藏龙 is. When productively building sentences in modern Mandarin, most verbs will usually have some sort of aspectual particle (来了两个人,卧着一只虎); but not always (有人说,下雨). In fixed expressions, these particles are frequently dispensed with, even if they would be expected in an equivalent, productively formed sentence (卧着虎藏着龙). Oct 20, 2023 at 13:06
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    Exactly as I said: productively in modern Mandarin, you normally (though not always) need an aspectual particle. This was not the case in earlier stages of the language, when many of these idioms were fixed. Using something as a 比喻/metaphor is not in opposition to it being a verb phrase; one is a semantic descriptor, the other a syntactic descriptor, and both can be true at the same time. The subject of existential 有 (‘there is/are’) always comes after the verb; i.e., 有人 rather than *人有. Oct 20, 2023 at 14:27
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    The question is about how 卧虎藏龙 is used in modern Mandarin. What its internal structure was when it was first coined in ancient times is irrelevant to that (though, as it happens, it was probably also two parallel verb phrases then). My point is precisely based on how it’s used: every single use of 卧虎藏龙 in modern Mandarin could syntactically be replaced with a presentative verb phrase of the positional type, but not with an adjective or noun phrase. That is the primary reason to consider it a verb phrase. Oct 20, 2023 at 15:50

In terms of grammar it's by itself a full sentence when used alone, and an attributive clause when used to describe something. Lots of Chinese idioms works this way, e.g. 众所周知,耳目一新,面目全非.

However, Chinese doesn't have a specialized grammar for attributive clause. An attributive clause in Chinese is grammatically (similar to) a multi-word adjective. So you are not really confused by the idiom, but by the way attributive clause works in Chinese.

这是一所拥有顶级专家的研究所 This is a research institute that has some top-tier experts.

这是一家卧虎藏龙的研究所 This is a research institute that lies dragons and hides tigers.

If you figure out how an attributive clause in English can be translated into Chinese, you would understand how to use those idioms.


If you use the definition "a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words" for idioms, 臥虎藏龍 is not an idiom. There are idioms in Chinese, called 歇後語, such as 高山滾鼓 and 王婆賣瓜.

For your second question, 臥虎藏龍 are sometimes used in everyday language.

  • Why not? It's not immediately clear that tigers and dragons are metaphors for talents. They could also be metaphors for, say, dangerous criminals, etc. So I think 藏龙卧虎 counts as idiom even by your definition. Oct 19, 2023 at 18:47
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    成语 (including this one) definitely count as idioms. Oct 19, 2023 at 18:58
  • Yes, they are metaphors, but any average Chinese user knows that. The meaning is rather apparent. Oct 20, 2023 at 3:44
  • I think that's not a good definition of idiom. First two places I looked: 1. an expression or phrase that does not follow regular rules of grammar, or one whose meaning cannot be predicted from the meaning of its individual parts:wordreference.com/definition/idiom. 2. An established phrasal expression whose meaning may not be deducible from the literal meanings of its component words. en.wiktionary.org/wiki/idiom I think it can be an idiom even if its meaning is deducible from those of the individual words. Oct 20, 2023 at 8:06
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    @goPlayerJuggler It's a 歇后语, not 成语. From 中国歇后语大词典 p.235: [高山滚鼓——扑通扑通又扑通] 扑通:象声词,形容鼓从高山上滚下时发出的响声,与“不通”近音相谐。(If you throw a drum from a high mountain, it makes loud sound like "putong putong", which is homophonic with 不通, meaning an article is illogical or unreadable.) Oct 20, 2023 at 16:16

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