What is a Chengyu? Learning about Chinese idioms

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What is a Chengyu? Learning about Chinese Idioms

Have you heard the word ‘Chengyu’ before? Do you what is a chengyu? Chinese Chengyu (成语) is a type of traditional Chinese idiomatic expression, or simply ‘Chinese idioms’ in Chinese language learning, typically consisting of four characters. It is widely used in Classical Chinese and are still common in vernacular Chinese writing and in the spoken language today. Today, there are between 5,000 and 20,000 chéng yǔ (成语).

Made out of four characters, these phrases normally contain a nugget of wisdom that is related to an older story, like a classic novel or ancient Chinese history. So, while some chéng yǔ (成语) can be understood almost immediately either with a simple meaning (E.g. “like a fish in water”) or a familiar english equivalent (E.g. “killing two birds with one stone”), others come from more unique or unusual stories and take a learning process. To this point, many Chinese learners see them as challenging and a nuisance.

A chéng yǔ (成语) is used often in writing and occasionally when speaking, but note, there are literally thousands of them with a huge variety of meanings. So, spending your precious study time memorizing obscure historical chéng yǔ (成语) is not a great idea. But, knowing some chéng yǔ (成语) is a sure sign of a sophisticated understanding of Chinese language and culture. Learning some of the most common ones will immediately make your Mandarin sound better, and really impress your Chinese friends and colleagues.

As already mentioned, a chéng yǔ (成语) is mostly derived from ancient literature. Its’ meaning surpasses the sum of the meanings carried by the four characters, as chéng yǔ (成语) is often intimately linked with the myth, story or an historical fact from which they were derived. As such, these chinese phrases do not follow the usual grammatical structure and syntax of the modern Chinese spoken language, and are instead highly compact and synthetic.

In isolation a chéng yǔ (成语) is often unintelligible without explanation, but when students learn different chéng yǔ (成语) in school, they study the context from which the chéng yǔ (成语) 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, pò fǔ chén zhōu) is based on a historical account where the general Xiang Yu ordered his troops to destroy all cooking utensils and boats after crossing a river into the enemy’s territory. He won the battle because of this “no-retreat” strategy. Similar phrases are known in the West, such as “burning bridges” or “crossing the Rubicon”. This particular idiom cannot be used in a losing scenario because the story behind it does not describe a failure.

As you might already know, it is most of the time not that easy to find out the right translation of a phrase. Germans for example sometimes say “Ich bin fuchsteufelswild!”. The wrong translation in English (word for word) would be “I’m fox-devils-wild!”. Never heard about it? No surprise, because the right translation would be “I’m flaming mad!” or “I go apeshit!”. You see, there phrases come along with a high potential of misunderstanding. Therefore, TutorMandarin wants to give you some examples of Chinese Phrases to prevent you of “…going apeshit”.

Wondering about the way we write chéng yǔ (成语)?

The reason for using the different symbols above the e and u is, that it is written in Pinyin. Pinyin is the official romanization system that chinese use to show how the single letters need to be pronounced. Want to learn more about Pinyin? At TutorMandarin we offer a separate Pinyin course for our Newbies to learn Chinese language. Interested in?

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