Chengyu (simplified Chinese: 成语; traditional Chinese: 成語; pinyin: chéngyǔ; literally: "set phrases") are a type of traditional Chinese idiomatic expression, most of which consist of four characters. Chengyu were widely used in Classical Chinese and are still common in vernacular Chinese writing and in the spoken language today. According to the most stringent definition, there are about 5,000 chengyu in the Chinese language, though some dictionaries list over 20,000. Chengyu are considered the collected wisdom of the Chinese culture. Through the insights learned from chengyu, you’ll discover the experiences, moral concepts, or admonishments from the older generations of Chinese. Nowadays, chengyu still plays an important role in Chinese conversations and education. It is therefore important to know some common chengyu as you learn the language.
They are often referred to as Chinese idioms or four-character idioms; however, they are not the only idioms in Chinese.
Chengyu are mostly derived from ancient literature. The meaning of a chengyu usually surpasses the sum of the meanings carried by the four characters, as chengyu are often intimately linked with the myth, story or historical fact from which they were derived. As such, chengyu do not follow the usual grammatical structure and syntax of the modern Chinese spoken language, and are instead highly compact and synthetic.
Chengyu in isolation are often unintelligible without explanation, and when students in China learn chengyu in school as part of the classical curriculum, they also need to study the context from which the chengyu was born. Often the four characters reflect the moral behind the story rather than the story itself. For example, the phrase "break the woks, sink the boats" (破釜沉舟,
Another example is "瓜田李下" (
However, that is not to say that all chengyu are born of an often-told fable. Indeed, chengyu which are free of metaphorical nuances pervade amidst the otherwise contextually driven aspect of written vernacular Chinese. An example of this is "speaking, yet without trust" (言而无信, yán ér wú xìn), referring to an individual who cannot be trusted despite what he says, an essentially deceitful person. The idiom itself is not derived from a specific occurrence from which a moral may be explicitly drawn; instead, it is succinct in its original meaning and would likely be intelligible to an individual learned in formal written Chinese. Its archaic nature is only betrayed by the now-unusual use of the character yán (言) as a verb.
Some Chinese idioms have English equivalents. For example, 冰山一角 and "the tip of the iceberg" share both their literal and idiomatic meanings, while 言不由衷 and "to speak with one's tongue in one's cheek" share idiomatic meanings.
Chinese idioms can also serve as a guide through Chinese culture. Chengyu teach about motifs that were previously common in Chinese literature and culture. For example, idioms with nature motifs – e.g., mountains (山), water (水), and the moon (月) – are numerous. Works considered masterpieces of Chinese literature – such as the Four Great Classical Novels – serve as the source for many idioms, which in turn condense and retell the story.
- Subject-Predicate Idiom – 螳螂捕蟬
- Interrelated Idiom – 情投意合
The following three examples show that the meaning of the idiom can be totally different by only changing one character.
一 日 千 秋: "One day, a thousand autumns."
- Meaning: implies rapid changes; one day equals a thousand years
一 日 千 里: "One day, a thousand miles."
- Meaning: implies rapid progress; traveling a thousand miles in a day
一 日 三 秋: "One day, three autumns."
- Meaning: greatly missing someone; one day feels as long as three years
|成語||Literal Meaning||Figurative Meaning|
|break the cauldrons and sink the boats||commit oneself irrevocably|
|call a dear a horse||deliberately misrepresent|
|so happy as to forget Shu||indulge in pleasures|
|to say three in the morning and four in the evening||always changing|
|a frog in the bottom of the well||a person with limited outlook|
|grind an iron bar down to a fine needle||to persevere in a difficult task|
|guard a tree-stump to wait for rabbits||wait idly for a reward|
|to mend the pen after sheep are lost||never late to try|
Yojijukugo is the similar format in Japanese. The term yojijukugo (四字熟語, four character idiom) is autological. Many of these idioms were adopted from their Chinese counterparts and have the same or similar meaning as in Chinese. The term koji seigo (故事成語, historical idiom) refers to an idiom that comes from a specific text as the source. As such, the overwhelming majority of koji seigo comes from accounts of history written in classical Chinese. Although a great many of the Japanese four-character idioms are derived from the Chinese, many others are purely Japanese in origin. Some examples:
- 花鳥風月 ka, chō, fū, getsu ("Flower, Bird, Wind, Moon"; beauties of nature)
- 一期一会 ichigo ichie (once-in-a-lifetime experience)
- 傍目八目 okamehachimoku (a bystander's vantage point)
- 手前味噌 temaemiso (singing one's own praises; tooting one's own horn)
- 二股膏薬 futamatagōyaku (double-dealer; timeserver)
- 風林火山 fū, rin, ka, zan ("wind, woods, fire, mountain"; military proverb coming from Sun Tzu's "Art of War"; see also Fūrinkazan)
The Korean equivalent are Sajaseong-eo (사자성어). They have similar categorization to Japanese ones, such as 고사성어 (故事成語) for historical idioms.
Dictionaries of Mandarin Chinese Idioms
- Herbert Allen Giles (1873). A dictionary of colloquial idioms in the Mandarin dialect. SHANGHAI: A.H. de Carvalho. p. 65. Retrieved 10 February 2012.(Harvard University)(Digitized Jul 22, 2005)
- Herbert Allen Giles (1873). A dictionary of colloquial idioms in the Mandarin dialect. SHANGHAI: A.H. De Carvalho. p. 65. Retrieved 10 February 2012.(Harvard University)(Digitized Mar 4, 2009)