Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Chinese Idiom in the hand is worth two in the bush

We have Idioms in English.

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  (kāi​mén​jiàn​shān).  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 (yī​jiàn​zhōng​qíng). 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 (hǎo​jiǔ​bu​jiàn), 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 (sài​wēng​shī​mǎ). 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!

Chengyu joke

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   (huà​shé ​tiān​zú​) - 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)!

Chengyu tools
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
     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


  1. "Long time no see" very possibly did come from the Chinese.

  2. Hey mousenb. So it might very well have come through Chinese indeed! Thanks for the link. (I must admit, when I was originally told this, it reminded me of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding", where the father was convinced that just about every word (including kimono!) derived from Greek words :-)

  3. I actually heard the story with the horses for the first time the other day! Wow! Great coincidences!

    I'm surprised that you have a love-hate relationship with chengyu. I have learned so much and was taught to use so many in regular conversation that I'm really used to them!

    How are you Greg? It's been awhile, I'm glad you're becoming fluent :)

  4. Becoming fluent? Nope - but I *am* progressing! So Kara, which would you say are the most common Chengyu that you use "in regular conversation"?

  5. There are much more idioms in MDBG. 250 is how much fits on one page, there is button "Next" at the bottom. You may want to look at them in order of usage frequency here:

    There was much more idioms in CEDICT, but most of them were dumped from the dictionary as result of somebody's copyright claim (AFAIK).

  6. Alex, thanks for your input. Yes you're right ... I just saw there were 250 results, and didn't even notice the 'next' button. Thanks also for the link - that sorting by frequency looks really useful!

    Am a little surprised to hear that someone has copyright over idioms which have been around for hundreds or thousands of years. Maybe they just copied the definitions?

  7. Hi, great post about chengyu.

    In 塞翁失马 the Sai Weng basically means the old man (weng) at the border (sai), since sai also means a place of strategic importance, or simply the border in the North (think of the Great Wall) placed against the barbarians.
    So, it originally didn't mean this guy's name, but more a description. Of course this doesn't influence the rest of the post or the chengyu. Well done!


  8. Thomas, thanks for the update. Actually when looking up this particular Chengyu, different sites had different interpretations of 'Sai Weng', so I went with the name. I didn't come across yours, but it makes most sense (particularly going to war, and being near the border)). Thanks!

  9. hey~ hello from hong kong
    kind of funny to see how foreigners study my mother language! HA!
    anyway~ here're some facts for you~


    THIS is written in simplified chinese
    in traditional chinese, it's 一見鍾情

    you translate this chengyu to "one look bell emotion"
    this is not exactly correct because...

    both of the simplified chinese of these 2 word “鐘" and “鍾" are “钟”
    they have the same pronunciation but different meaning

    “鐘" means bell


    “鍾" means focus on one (when it is pair up with “情")

    so you can't say "one look bell emotion"
    it should be "fall in love at first sight at this particular someone/something"


    好久不见(好久不見) is NOT a chengyu


    you can get a better definition of the idioms here
    they have english definition YEAH~
    and the story which the chengyu came from (written in ancient chinese 文言文)



    you can look for more in the chengyu dictionary


    i'm not an expert but these are what i know
    hope it can help~

    1. Hi there - thanks for taking the time to write this comment, you've given some fantastic information - some of which I have never seen before. This is really great stuff!

      And you're in HK? We should meet up at some stage!

      Firstly, your point about both 鍾 and 鐘 appearing as 钟 in Simplified is interesting - I never knew about the other one, so yet - the chengyu makes more sense know that I know. Thanks :-)

      You say that "好久不見" is not a chengyu, and that got me thinking ... how do we know if a 4-hanzi expression is a chengyu or not? In this case, is it simply that it doesn't appear in some approved list of chengyu?

      And thanks for the link to the other dictionary - it looks really good!

      Thanks for dropping in, I look forward to more of your comments in future :-)

  10. The ox is slow but the earth is patient.