Big Fish in a Small Pond

15 Mar 2005

I’ve recently started using my Chinese blog for a new purpose: exploration of my Chinese readers’ understanding of their language. This can be attempted in many ways, but my first experimentation was with translation.

It all started when a friend asked me how to say “big fish in a small pond” in Chinese. He figured there must be a chengyu for it. It seemed to me like there should be too, so I got out my chengyu dictionaries. When I failed to find anything, I used Google. Still nothing. So then I decided to ask my Chinese readers. I gave my readers a short explanation of the expression (too short, in retrospect), and an example of its usage. Then I asked them: how do you say this in Chinese?

I got a decent number of responses, but none of them seemed to capture the meaning quite right. The results were very interesting, though, so I thought I’d share them. Here are some of the suggestions offered:

  • “When there’s no tiger in the mountains, the monkey calls himself king.” (ɽÖÐÎÞÀÏ»¢£¬ºï×ӳƴóÍõ)
  • “Choosing a tall person from among dwarves.” (°«×ÓÀïÃæ°Î³¤×Ó)
  • “A crane standing among chickens.” (º×Á¢¼¦Èº)
  • “Small temple, great monk.” (ÃíСºÍÉдó)
  • “A magician meets a great sorcerer.” (СÎ×¼û´óÎ×)
  • “Great talent put to little use.” (´ó²ÄСÓÃ)

I don’t think any of these match up perfectly. You can read my readers’ discussion of that in the comments if you read Chinese. What surprised me most was that the English expression implied a lot more than I originally thought, which disqualified a lot of the Chinese idioms, each carrying their own implications.

I’ll continue my linguistic explorations on my Chinese blog, and occasionally report back here when I find something I think is worth sharing.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Da Xiangchang Says: March 16, 2005 at 12:17 am

    Hey, I didn’t know you went to such lengths for a friend! What I do know, however, is that this friend must be a genius to be able to goad you into such linguistic explorations. 😉

  2. It is rather well known that some, if not most, idioms do not translate well. That is why a wise international person (e.g., Zhou Enlai) tries hard to avoid using them IF an interpreter is doing the instantaneous translation.

    Recently, I heard an example of such English words being talked about: accountable. Hard to translate into many languages.

    Remember the “the moon represents my heart” discussion?

  3. John, maybe the simplest translation is the correct translation:



  4. Many idiomatic phrases work well translated directly, and this is probably one of them. I’m often taken aback when I encounter quotations from Shakespeare in news editorials and the like without any sort of clarifying reference – they’ve apparently been indigenized.

    Going the other way, what English phrase best encompasses the meaning of Ö½ÀÏ»¢?

  5. Probably a wise idea to limit the discussions to a particular discussion. I recall your posting from earlier, on the Chinese language side. I may be in error, it is just pure speculation (well, almost pure) on my part, but I suspect that the connotation of “big fish in a small pond” will carry a negative feeling among East Asians (Chinese, Vietnamese, and Japanese from my experience). Therefore, your first entry, ɽÖÐÎÞÀÏ»¢£¬ºï×ӳƴóÍõ would, I suspect be the closest analog in Chinese to the English phrase. I think the problem is not just language, but the cultural implications involved in the language. As Tian as indicated, the translation is rather straight forward. But what would be viewed as neutral or positive in one culture may not be viewed so in another culture.

  6. Just to clarify, the point of this post was not, “wow, idioms can be hard to translate!” (which is rather obvious) but rather, “look at some of these interesting translations.”

  7. Anonymous Says: March 16, 2005 at 1:02 pm

    Hi John,

    I think the closest to the english meaning one should be: ÄþΪ¼¦Í·¡¢²»×ö·ïβ
    ” would rather be the chicken head, not be the tail of a phoenix”


  8. The above comment seems right — I tend to think of “a big fish in a small pond” as (possibly) implying that the fish in question likes it that way, which would disqualify the suggestions in your post.

    zhwj – “paper tiger” seems to get used in English, though not really in the same sense. Maybe “scarecrow” or “boogeyman?”

  9. bingfeng Says: March 16, 2005 at 4:03 pm

    one that has the opposite meaning:


  10. I was assuming you were not looking so much at translations, but rather existing equivalents in the two different cultures. There are many aphorisms in one language that will have a pretty good equivalent in another language. I am reminded of the saying from the old testament (I forget now the exact book, but I think it is in II Chronicles, also in another book) of “do not pisseth against the wind” (this would be the translation from the King James version)which has a decent equivalent saying in Japanese, “do not spit at Heaven”.

    My thinking was centered on the full phrase, as I always understund it, “it is better to be a big fish in a small pond rather than a small fish in a big pond.” So I understand the phrase as meaning it will be much easier to be a big guy with influence in a small organization with less competition than in a large organization where there will be a lot more bullies to compete with. Given that as the basis of the meaning of the aphorism as I understand it, then the equivalent Chinese would be the monkey howling as if king when the tiger is away.

    Because of the heavy influence of Confucian ethics on Chinese Civilization, with its emphasis on correct behavior and modest demeanor, I do not believe there will be an exact equivalent in Chinese; as or instance, with the “boy who cried wolf”.

  11. Hi, one of my friends led me here, and I found it’s quite an interesting place.
    For the translation…may I ask when do you often use this sentence?

  12. JFS,

    Your comment is interesting to me because I don’t remember ever hearing the “it is better to be” part of it. I think I’ve always always heard it in a form something like, “he’s a big fish in a small pond.” In this form, it’s fairly neutral (at least without an explicit judgment made), simply describing a person’s abilities/influence in relation to his surroundings.

    It becomes even harder to translate a saying when different groups of people have a different understanding of it. It can be a generational thing.

    Of interest to me grammatically regarding your comment was your usage of the little-known past tense conjugation of the verb understand: “understund.” 🙂

  13. If John means what JFS interprets, that is, “it is better to be a big fish in a small pond rather than a small fish in a big pond,” then I still like using º×Á¢¼¦Èº.

    However, the problem is, as JFS correctly pointed out, Confucianism advocates behaving mainstreamly and modestly thus the translation, even if very accurate, gets twisted in flavor. Being a big fish in a small pond or being a º× among ¼¦, an American would say feels good but a Chinese might feel risky (fisrt person) or arrogant (third person). Same is true with the monkey in absence of tiger analogue: does it convey pride or arrogance?

    That’s why I say translating idioms is hard.

  14. I think that the question of ambition, rather than arrogance or incorrect behavior, is more relevant from a Confucian standpoint, at least as it is played out in practice. Big fish in small ponds are criticized not for their arrogance but for their lack of drive.

    Look back at all the stories about scholars who were unwilling or unable to advance beyond the position of local official – as “big fish” they were looked down upon somewhat for being in a “small pond”. And in the phrase that Edel metions, “ÄþΪ¼¦Í·¡¢²»×ö·ïβ”, one takes for granted that a chicken is inferior to a phoenix, yet for one reason or another one settles for the lesser choice. (‘course, there’s a western analogue to this in a biblical quotation about wanting to be a doorman.)

    I’m not sure that there’s a similar feel to the English expression; I’ve heard it used condescendingly, but as John says, it mostly seems neutral.

  15. Anonymous Says: March 17, 2005 at 5:11 pm

    that is definition of the ‘big fish in a small pond’ on

    “big frog in a little pond. A person who is important in a limited arena; someone overqualified for a position or in relation to colleagues. For example, Steve has both a Ph.D. and an M.D., yet he’s content with his practice at a rural hospital; he prefers to be a big fish in a little pond. The expression big fish has been slang for an important or influential person since the early 1800s. The addition of in a small pond as a metaphor for an unimportant organization is more recent, as is the substitution of frog. Another variant is the proverb Better a big fish in a little puddle than a little fish in a big puddle.”


  16. Just prior to my returning to China, I spent a couple of years working in Alaska. My wife was not with me there, and I have only a few vices (or so I hope); of which one is to buy books and study something. There I bought an unbelievably large number of classical and biblical greek grammars and texts (The Iliad, the Anabasis, etc.) So amongst Latin, Greek, German, Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese, I am getting to the point where I cannot remember how to spell anything. But that does not phase me, I have a fool of myself so often that I just keep slugging through life.

    I have no quibbles with Gin about the selection he has made, I think it is just as good as my own choice. As a matter of fact, I think it really is just a matter of personal taste in this matter. I was born in the year of the Monkey and therefore tend to choose Monkey things over others (except I prefer chicken feet over monkey brains).

  17. FreeJack Says: March 18, 2005 at 7:51 am

    Seems to me the chicken/phoenix one is more akin to “Would rather rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

  18. schtickyrice Says: March 19, 2005 at 10:35 am


    I don’t think chicken has the same negative connotations in Chinese culture as it does in Western culture. After all, we just celebrated the Year of the Cock, as John so aptly put it.

  19. Dean A. Nash Says: April 1, 2005 at 11:00 am

    I always interpreted the idiom to mean that “it’s better to be at the TOP of the food chain rather than being at the BOTTOM (of the food chain).” After all, if you’re a fish, the only reason you’re concerned about size is for survival. RIGHT? Your neighbors aren’t impressed with your prestige, just your ability to either eat them, OR be their dinner.

    Funny how different people see the same things differently. This diversity is not only the spice of life, but our salvation. That’s why nature demands diversity.

    One other note about diversity. It’s natural, but not normal. Again, look at nature. There are many different types of fish (diversity), yet normally they tend to hang out with ‘like-minded’ fish, thus we have the useful phrase “a school of fish”, and the even more useful saying “birds of a feather, flock together.” Although diversity is natural, you do have to choose it. Those who do, win. Those who don’t, lose.

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