Sunday, March 27, 2011
A Chinese Idiom in the hand is worth two in the bush
Every cloud has a silver lining. The early bid catches the worm. Better late than never. But as many as we have (and as many as you were forced to memorise during your years at school) nothing comes close to the Chinese system of Chéngyǔ (成语 / 成語 - which means 'set phrases').
Chengyu, in the strict sense, are four-character idioms, and according to Wikipedia there are over 5000 of them. Children spend a lot of time learning them at school, so you can be damn sure you're going to come across them often.
This post is not to get you like Chengyu, or even to start memorising them. But it's what happened in my own Mandarin-learning life around these idioms - just an unconnected series of personal anecdotes (although if you can see the hidden connection then well done!).
In the beginning
I had heard about some Mandarin students dedicating a lot of their time to learning Chengyu, but at the time I was thrilled if I could just remember how to say "I'm from South Africa" in decent Mandarin. So I promised myself I would never memorise any. Unfortunately, as your level increases, you can't avoid them - they come up more often that you'd like.
Losing my virginity
My first Chengyu was in a London dimsum restaurant called Ping Pong, which has the ceiling covered in a wall-paper with Chengyu written all over it. At that stage, my reading skills were rubbish, but looking around I saw one that I could actually read!
开门见山 (kāiménjiànshān). Literally, this is: open door see mountain. Can you work out what that means?
Open door see mountain. I had fallen in love with Chengyu. So simple, so direct. Wow - I could memorise millions of these!
I hate Chengyu
A few days later I was speaking with a Chinese friend about my new-found love, and she asked me what that particular Chengyu meant. So I explained my understanding: It was kinda like Nike's "Just do it!" Open the door, see the mountain. It's right outside.
But I was wrong, she explained. The actual meaning is "Get right to the point." This was so annoying, for two reasons. Firstly, she was right - I spoke with several people, and looked up several resources on the net, and she was right. Secondly, my interpretation made more sense than hers. But no matter how much I argued, I couldn't change a few thousand years of habit for the Chinese.
Chengyu were not obvious, they were not simple. And I hated them.
Love at first sight
OK, so I learned to relax when I came across another one: 一见钟情 (yījiànzhōngqíng). Literally, this means "one look bell emotion". Basically, it's just "love at first sight" - which was relatively intuitive, and my dislike for Chengyu started to fade again. (Love is fickle, eh?)
Which reminds me of 好久不见 (hǎojiǔbujiàn), which literally means 'long time no see', and the idioatic meaning is, uhm, 'long time no see'. In fact, even though it's four characters long, it's so literally correct that I'm not sure if it's idiomatic enough to be called Chengyu. (Amusingly, I've got Chinese friends who insist that the West stole the phrase 'long time no see' from the Chinese. OK.)
Have you lost your horse?
Some Chengyu require you to understand the back-story to understand the meaning. So with "open door see mountain", although my definition is better than the actual definition :-) at least now that I know what it should mean, I won't forget.
But take for example, 塞翁失马 (sàiwēngshīmǎ). You can spend as much time as you want with the dictionary, you're not going to get it yourself. If you get the literal translation, you've got something like "block old-man lose horse". What?
Actually, 塞翁 is the name of a person - it has nothing to do with blocking old men from losing their horse. The back-story is in fact well known to Westerners, in various guises. Basically, Saiweng has a horse that runs away, but he doesn't take that as bad news. Months later it comes back with another, but he doesn't take that as good news either. His son then goes riding on the new horse and breaks his arm - which Saiweng doesn't take as bad news. Then a war breaks out, and his son avoids conscription because of the broken arm ... and so on.
This actually remind me of another 'story' I remember from school:
A man takes a ride in an airplane.
Unfortunately he falls out.
Fortunately he has a parachute.
Unfortunately it doesn't work.
Fortunately there is a haystack below him.
Unfortunately there is a pitchfork sticking out.
Fortunately he misses the pitchfork.
Unfortunately he misses the haystack.
But I digress ...
Do you know that?
I was reading through Carl Gene's excellent blog, and in his one post about love idioms, I saw the following: 藕断丝连 (ǒuduànsīlián), which he describes as follows: "The lotus root is severed, but linked by threads. This chengyu metaphorises the idea of a relationship breaking up, but still being connected in some kind of way."
Nice concept, but frankly I had no idea what he was talking about. Lotus root threads? What? So I did some searching, and came across the following really interesting article, with a whole bunch of pictures.
I did not know that!
Brilliant, isn't it?? (Actually, I couldn't see why that should be funny. See if you can work it out, even after you've read the explanation!)
My most recent Chengyu
And to wrap up the article, I'll mention that recently a colleague of mine was visiting HK from our Beijing office (he's German, fluent in Mandarin), and the topic of Chengyu came up. He immediately announced that his favourite (and indeed his first) is ...
画蛇添足 (huàshé tiānzú) - literally "paint a snake, append a foot". Its meaning is to do with over-doing it, or to do something superfluous to ruin the effect. That's a great Chengyu (although I still haven't had the chance to use it)!
So that's my life's relationship with Chengyu, an apparently unconnected set of stories. I'd love to hear about your experiences, whether failures or favourites, so drop us a note below ...
In the meantime, here are some other sites that might interest you:
Wikipedia article on Chengyu
Chengyu Dicionary: by Chinese-Tools.com
MDBG idioms: all 250 entries where the word "idiom" appears
Ten Chinese love idioms by Carl Gene
Twenty actually useful Chengyu by Carl Gene
Ten Chinese idioms to do with animals by ChineseHacks
My Chengyu Top Ten by Sinosplice