I thought I’d write a small piece on idioms and my thoughts on them.
A Chengyu (成語) is a form of idiomatic expression. They usually consist of four characters, but of course some are longer. Many Chengyu are used in everyday conversation, these examples are common and could be viewed as catchphrases. Here are some examples;
自由自在 – zi4 you2 zi2 zai4 – lit. free and easy; carefree/leisurely
首屈一指 – shou3 qu1 yi1 zhi3 – second to none/outstanding
一分爲二 – yi1 fen1 wei2 er4 – lit. one divides into two; there are two sides to everything/to see both sb’s good points and shortcomings
There are thousands of phrases like these ones. They are great if you are looking to improve your oral Chinese as after you have learned a few you will begin to listen out for them in daily conversations. I used to learn one a day, and jot down new ones in a little notepad. There is usually an interesting story behind the most common chengyus that can help you remember.
Others Chengyus are used in works of literature to enrich the imagery and conveyance of stylistic expression. Some Chinese families even hang them as works of calligraphy on their walls, or etch them into their paintbrushes and adopt them as personal maxims. It’s also not uncommon to see Chinese businesses adopting a chengyu they feel represents their company’s image.
The best thing about Chengyu’s is many of them can be translated to English phrases, sometimes not directly but there is usually an equivalent English phrase. For example:
集腋成裘 – ji2 ye4 cheng2 qiu2 – lit. many hairs make a fur coat; many a mickle makes a muckle.
雨過天晴 – yu3 guo4 tian1 qing1 – lit. sky clears after the rain; every cloud has a silver lining.
冰山一角 – bing1 shan1 yi1 jiao3 – tip of the iceberg
The thing about learning Chengyus is they are all about personal preference. Different strokes for different folks. For me personally, some of chengyus make little sense as they express a meaning that is unique in Chinese culture. Yet, they are good for ‘showing’ off your Chinese. You can whip out a few at a business dinner or at a meeting to impress.
Some chengyus have variants, depending on where you go in China and dialects etc. For instance, the Chengyu 一成不變 (yi1 cheng2 bu4 bian4) meaning stuck in a rut/always the same, changes its meaning when translated into Cantonese. Cantonese speakers, especially Hong Kong residents use 一生不變 (yi1 sheng1 bu4 bian4 – yat sung bat bin) which conveys a good meaning of permanence and stability.
Learning the many different chengyus is a difficult task, so 加油！
只要成功夫深鐵杵磨成針 – If you work at it hard enough, you can grind an iron bar into a needle.
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龙飞凤舞 – The Dragon flies, the Phoenix dances..
On first glance, Chinese can seem like a very linear language – the grammar is simple enough, and learning all the characters and vocabulary seems to be the hardest part. Until one delves further into the literary world of the language. Chinese characters are already complicated in themselves, almost like miniature works of art, however Chinese is also peppered with abbreviations, wordplay and set phrases or proverbs – the Chengyu 成语.
These are four-character phrases, which at first glance can seem nonsensical or completely irrelevant in the sentence, sometimes as if they have been put together at random. But almost every Chengyu originates from an ancient story or saying which usually carried deeper meaning.Most Chinese idioms have their roots in classical Chinese – the written form of Old Chinese – such as works of Confucius, Mencius or other renowned philosophers, or simply folk tales.
Here are some examples of Chinese Chengyu:
破釜沉舟 Pò Fŭ Chén Zhōu – ‘break the cauldrons and sink the boats’. This idiom implies that one pulls through with their plan without looking back, without allowing retreat. It stems from a battle account from the last years of the Qin Dynasty. The general Xiang Yu led an army far inferior in number to their enemy’s, however he gave his men courage in ordering them to sink their boats and destroy their cooking pots once they crossed the river. Hence, the soldiers resolved to fight to their deaths. On the day of the battle, however, Xiang Yu’s army defeated the enemy and captured the general. Therefore this idiom can only be used in successful scenarios.
水滴石穿 Shuĭ Dī Shí Chuān – ‘water drops pierce stone’. This Chengyu describes perseverance, implying that so long as one does not give up, one will achieve their aims. This saying originates from a story of the Song Dynasty. The official Zhang Yong found out that one minor official had taken a coin from the counting-house and so had him questioned. The arrogant official protested that he did not deserve any punishment for taking just a single coin. Zhang Yong was furious, stating “A coin every day, A thousand in a thousand days. The tree branch is felled from the stress of a rope, and the stone is pierced by dripping water.” Consequently the official was beheaded by Zhang Yong himself.
Some Chengyu also have English equivalents, for example 璞玉浑金 — Pú Yù Hún Jīn , meaning ‘uncarved jade and impure gold’, similar to the saying ‘diamond in the rough’. 血浓于水 – Xuè Nóng Yú Shuǐ, which translates to ‘blood is thicker than water’.
There are about 5000 different Chengyu in the Chinese language, each with their own unique story and lesson to teach. So make sure you do not ‘pull up the sprouts to make them grow’ (揠苗助长)* and follow the ‘wise man who looks after himself’ (明哲保身)**.
* To ignore the principles of natural development, to blindly pursue instant success, so that ultimately you spoil things.
** Smart and well-informed people know enough to avoid dangerous situations and preserve themselves.
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