About Chengyu Idioms

When I started to learn Chinese, I would often encounter a sequence of four syllables, that sounded like they belonged together but somehow still didn’t make any sense to me. And here is what happened:

Chéngyǔ (Simplified Chinese: 成语 / Traditional Chinese: 成語) are Chinese idioms. In most cases they consist of four characters, but there are some exceptions. They are frequently used in modern Chinese but derive from ancient stories or poems and – within only four characters – try to deliver their morale.

With a very high amount of homophones in Chinese, the meaning (let alone deeper meaning) of a Chengyu is usually near impossible to guess from mere hearing. Seeing the characters in written form most often also doesn’t do the job, even for native speakers. That’s why Chinese students have to learn Chengyu in school, with their according stories – most of them even own a Chengyu dictionary.

Let me give you an example. The Chengyu 枯鱼之肆 kūyúzhīsì literally means “dried fish market”. You most likely have no idea what this Chinese idiom is supposed to imply. So let me sum up the story: There once was a man who found a near-dead fish at the side of the road. The fish asked him for some water to save his life. The man replied he was about to travel to the Yangzi River and promised to bring some water back for him. The fish then said: “By the time you come back, I’ll already be at the dried fish market.”

And since that day (alledgedly) the Chinese say something has reached the dried fish market when it’s in a situation where all help comes too late.

There are said to be about 5000 of such Chinese idioms or proverbs, but this number varies for the following reasons:

  • Lots of Chengyu have one or more synonyms, which derive from the same story but differ in one or two characters, not least because of the high number of local dialects in Chinese.
  • Some phrases appear to be Chengyu but do not match the typical criteria such as having four characters or deriving from an ancient story. Wheather or not you regard these idioms as a Chengyu, is basically up to each individual. I am not going to be picky on this website.

The hardest part for Chinese learners seems to be the implementation of a Chengyu in a sentence – because it’s just not really clear what type of “word” it is.

I hope this helped you understand the concept of Chinese Chengyu. Any feedback is appreciated!

One Comment to “About Chengyu Idioms”

  1. Eh Dee 28 September 2011 at 8:42 am #

    IS there a story for “Sigh, the great ocean”?


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