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Chinese characters for chengyu

Chengyu (traditional Chinese: 成語; simplified Chinese: 成语; pinyin: chéngyǔ; trans. "set phrase") are a type of traditional Chinese idiomatic expressions, most of which consist of four Chinese characters. Chengyu were widely used in Literary Chinese and are still common in written 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, and contain the experiences, moral concepts, and admonishments from previous generations of Chinese speakers. Chengyu still play an important role in Chinese conversation and education.[1][2] Chinese idioms are one of four types of formulaic expressions (熟语; 熟語; shúyǔ), which also include collocations (惯用语; 慣用語; guànyòngyǔ), two-part allegorical sayings called xiehouyu, and proverbs (谚语; 諺語; yànyǔ).

While not the only idioms in Chinese, they are often referred to as Chinese idioms or four-character idioms.

Origins, construction, and interpretation

Chengyu are mostly derived from ancient literature, including the pre-Qin classics, poetry from all periods of Chinese history, and late imperial vernacular novels and short stories. A small number were constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries from Western source materials. Among the early classical literature, the lyrical imagery from the Classic of Poetry, and the detailed stories recorded in the Zuo Zhuan and the Records of the Grand Historian serve as particularly rich source materials for chengyu. Since the Shijing poems consist of four-character lines, some chengyu are direct quotes from the Classic of Poetry. For example, 萬夀無疆 'ten-thousand year lifespan without bound', a traditional expression to wish someone a long life that often appears on bowls and tableware, quotes the poem "Tian Bao" (天保, poem #166) in the Lesser Court Hymns section of the Classic of Poetry. More commonly, however, chengyu are created by succinctly paraphrasing or summarizing the original text, usually by selecting the most salient characters from the passage in question and inserting any necessary classical grammatical particles.

As such, chengyu are fossilized expressions that use the vocabulary and follow the syntactic rules of Literary Chinese. Consequently, they convey information more compactly than normal vernacular speech or writing. They may contain subject and predicate and act as an independent clause (or even twin two-character independent clauses in parallel), or they may play the role of any part of speech in a sentence, acting syntactically as an adjective, adverb, verb, or noun phrase. In both speech and writing, they serve to succinctly convey a complex or multifaceted situation, scene, or concept, and used fittingly and elegantly, they also mark a speaker or writer's erudition.

The meaning of a chengyu usually surpasses the sum of the meanings carried by the four characters, as chengyu are generally meant to convey the message or moral of the myth, story or historical event from which they were derived. Thus, even after translation into modern words and syntax, chengyu in isolation are often unintelligible without additional explanation. Since they often contain a classical allusion, known as a diǎngù (典故), elementary and secondary school students in greater China learn chengyu as part of the classical curriculum in order 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 "破釜沉舟" (pò fǔ chén zhōu, lit: "break the pots and sink the ships") 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. Thus, the idiom is used as a verb phrase with the meaning "to make an all-out effort to achieve success by the deliberate removal of recourse or backup." Similar phrases are known in the West, such as "Burning one's boats", "burning one's bridges", "Point of no return" or "Crossing the Rubicon".

Another example is 瓜田李下 (guātián lǐxià 'melon field, beneath the plums', whose meaning relates to the appearance of misconduct or impropriety. It is derived from an excerpt of a Han-era poem (樂府君子, Yuèfǔ Shī "Jūnzǐ Xíng"). The poem includes the lines 'don't adjust your shoes in a melon field, and don't tidy your hat under the plum trees' (瓜田, guā tián bù nà lǚ, lǐ xià bù zhěng guān), admonishing the reader to avoid situations where, however innocent, he might be suspected of doing wrong. The idiom is impossible to understand without the background knowledge of the origin of the phrase.

Some idioms have had their literal meanings overtake their original ones. For example, 'wind from an empty cave' (空穴來風, kōng xué lái fēng), despite now being used to describe rumors without source, originally referred to rumors with actual, solid sources or reasons. Likewise, 'bare-faced facing the emperor' (素面朝天 is now used to describe beauty that does not require make-up, e.g., when entering court, while its original meaning was "to be confident in one's true look".

However, not all chengyu have stories to draw morals from. An example is 言而無信 'speaking, yet without trust', referring to one who cannot be trusted despite what he says, an essentially deceitful person. It is generally acknowledged as a chengyu as it comes from the Analects. The idiom is succinct in its original meaning and would likely be intelligible to anyone learned in formal written Chinese, though yán () is no longer commonly used as a verb.

There are a few chengyu that are not four characters in length. An example is the seven-character 醉翁之意不在酒 'The Old Drunkard's attention is not directed towards his wine'. This is a direct quote from Ouyang Xiu's essay An Account of Old Drunkard's Pavilion (醉翁亭記), in which the author, as the Old Drunkard, expresses his true intention of enjoying the scenery of the mountains and rivers as he drinks. As an idiom, it expresses the situation where one does something with an ulterior though benign motive in mind.

Some chengyu have English equivalents. For example, 言不由衷 'speak not from the bosom' and 'to speak with one's tongue in one's cheek' share idiomatic meanings. The Chinese not having conducted maritime explorations of the North Atlantic during imperial times, the expression 冰山一角 'one corner of an ice mountain' is a rare example of a chengyu that emerged in the early 20th century after contact with the West as a translation of the expression "tip of the iceberg," thus sharing both their literal and idiomatic meanings.[3] Another expression 火中取栗 'extracting chestnuts from the fire', originating from a La Fontaine fable, means "to be duped into taking risks for someone else," used in much the same way as the expression "cat's paw" in English is another example of an "international" chengyu. Though they are recent in origin, they are constructed using the vocabulary and syntax of Literary Chinese and fits within the four-character scheme, making them chengyu.

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, water, and the Moon – are numerous. Works considered masterpieces of Chinese literature – such as the Four Great Classical Novels[4] – serve as the source for many idioms, which in turn condense and retell the story.

All Chinese people know idioms, though the total number known by any one individual will depend on their background. Idioms are such an important part of Chinese popular culture that there is a game called 成語接龍 'connect the chengyu' that involves someone calling out an idiom, with someone else then being supposed to think of another idiom to link up with the first one, so that the last character of the first idiom is the same as the first character of the second idiom, and so forth.

Chinese examples

The following three examples show that the meaning of the idiom can be totally different by only changing one character.

Examples in Chinese
Chengyu Gloss Meaning Etymology
一箭雙鵰(yí jiàn shuāng diāo) kill two eagles with one arrow kill two birds with one stone, i.e. to achieve two aims at once See History of the Northern Dynasties
破釜沉舟(pò fǔ chén zhōu) break the cauldrons and sink the boats burn bridges, i.e. commit oneself irrevocably See Battle of Julu
指鹿為馬(zhǐ lù wéi mǎ) call a deer a horse deliberately misrepresent See Zhao Gao
樂不思蜀(lè bù sī shǔ) so happy as to forget Shu indulge in pleasures See Liu Shan
朝三暮四(zhāo sān mù sì) to say three in the morning and four in the evening always changing (new meaning), a change without any substantive difference (original meaning) See Zhuangzi
井底之蛙(jǐng dǐ zhī wā) a frog in the bottom of the well a person with limited outlook See Zhuangzi
磨杵成針(mó chǔ chéng zhēn) grind an iron bar down to a fine needle to persevere in a difficult task See Li Bai
守株待兔(shǒu zhū dài tù) guard a tree-stump to wait for rabbits wait idly for a reward See Han Feizi
亡羊補牢(wáng yáng bǔ láo) to mend the pen after sheep are lost close the stable door after the horse has bolted, i.e. try too late to prevent harm See Warring States Records
三人成虎(sān rén chéng hǔ) Three men make a tiger repeated rumor becomes a fact See Warring States Records
完璧歸趙(wán bì guī zhào) return the jade to Zhao to return something intact to its rightful owner[5]: 24  See Mr. He's jade
塞翁失馬(sài wēng shī mǎ) old man from the frontier lost his horse a blessing in disguise See Huainanzi
刻舟求劍(kè zhōu qiú jiàn) carve the boat in search of the sword approach without considering the reality of a situation See Lüshi Chunqiu
火中取栗(huǒ zhōng qǔ lì) take chestnuts out of the fire Someone acting in another's interest (cat's-paw) Derived from The Monkey and the Cat
負荊請罪(fù jīng qǐng zuì) carrying a bramble and ask for punishment offer a humble apology See Lian Po
紙上談兵(zhǐ shàng tán bīng) talk about military tactics on paper theoretical discussion useless in practice See Zhao Kuo
畫蛇添足(huà shé tiān zú) to add feet when drawing a snake to improve something unnecessarily See Warring States Records
畫龍點睛(huà lóng diǎn jīng) to add eyes when painting a dragon adding the finishing touch to something See Zhang Sengyou
對牛彈琴(duì niú tán qín) playing the guqin to a cow to communicate well, you need to understand your audience See Mouzi Lihuolun
狼吞虎嚥(láng tūn hǔ yàn) swallow like tiger and devour like wolf eating food quickly and in a messy manner
衣錦還鄉(yì jǐn huán xiāng) to wear embroided clothing and return to one’s hometown return to humble origins after making it big
易如反掌(yì rú fǎn zhǎng) as easy as turning over one's hand for something to be very easy See Mencius

Japanese examples

Main article: Yojijukugo

Yojijukugo is the similar format in Japanese. The term yojijukugo (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:

Korean examples

Main article: Sajaseong-eo

The Korean equivalent are Sajaseong-eo (사자성어; Hanja: 四字成語).[6] They have similar categorization to Japanese ones, such as Gosaseong-eo (고사성어; Hanja: 故事成語) for historical idioms.[7]

Vietnamese examples

Four word idioms or any idiom in Vietnamese are known as thành ngữ (chữ Hán: 成語, literally "set phrase/speech"). A large amount of idioms originating from Classical Chinese have been borrowed into the language, but there exists native counterparts to the Classical Chinese idioms. There are also many idioms that are Vietnamese in origin. Vietnamese idioms can be classified into Sino-Vietnamese idioms (Vietnamese: thành ngữ Hán Việt, chữ Hán Nôm: 成語漢越) and native Vietnamese idioms (Vietnamese: thành ngữ thuần Việt, chữ Hán Nôm: 成語純越) that were once written in chữ Nôm, are now written in the Latin-based Vietnamese alphabet.

Sino-Vietnamese Idioms
Classical Chinese (Hán văn, 漢文) Vietnamese alphabet (chữ Quốc Ngữ, 𡨸國語) Meaning
否極泰來 Bĩ cực thái lai The darkest hour is just before the dawn "The worst situation comes before a good one."
相親相愛 Tương thân tương ái To be altruistic and charitable to each other, especially in times of crisis or disaster
盡善盡美 Tận thiện tận mỹ Very good or beautiful
溫故知新 Ôn cố tri tân One should be able to derive new understanding while revising what one has learned.
全心全意 Toàn tâm toàn ý With all of one's heart; completely dedicated

Native Vietnamese Idioms
Chữ Hán Nôm (𡨸漢喃) Vietnamese alphabet (chữ Quốc Ngữ, 𡨸國語) Meaning
𫗒𠰳𫡽𠰳 Ăn miếng trả miếng Tit for tat; literally, "eat a piece, pay back a piece"
𢢂𨐮𢢂𧃵 Ghét cay ghét đắng To have an extreme and utter hatred, literally, "Hate spiciness, hate bitterness"
幔𡗶𥴜𡐙 Màn trời chiếu đất A situation where many people become homeless, especially after a disaster; literally, "to use the sky as a curtain and the land as a mat"
厭𣵰羅鐄 Im lặng là vàng Peace and quiet have great value; literally, "Peace and quiet is golden"
𨕭𤠅𠖈㹥 Lên voi xuống chó To have ups and downs in one's life, to go from riches to rags; literally, "Going up on a elephant, going down on a dog"

See also

Dictionaries of Mandarin Chinese Idioms


  1. ^ "Useful Chinese Chengyu for Daily Conversation". maayot. 27 August 2020. Retrieved 30 Aug 2020.
  2. ^ "Chinese Idioms or Chéngyǔ About Animals -". 2017-08-28. Retrieved 2018-09-01.
  3. ^ Lo, Wing Huen (2003). Best Chinese Idioms (in English and Chinese). Vol. Three. Translated by Sun, Li Jie. Peace Book. ISBN 962-238-338-6.
  4. ^ The Four Great Classical Novels are actually written in Early Vernacular Chinese, although they were intended for an educated audience and contain long passages in classical poetry and many classical allusions.
  5. ^ Reinders, Eric (2024). Reading Tolkien in Chinese: Religion, Fantasy, and Translation. Perspectives on Fantasy series. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 9781350374645.
  6. ^ "Structure of Korean Idioms". Archived from the original on 2014-05-12. Retrieved 2014-05-10.
  7. ^ Structure of four character idioms".