Chéngyǔ, 成语, literally ‘set phrases’ are short, punchy, wise Chinese sayings you can use to spice up your conversation and get some insight into Chinese culture. There are thousands of Chéngyǔ, but far fewer which will enter into everyday conversation. You wouldn’t walk into a restaurant and ask if the soup of the day is ‘to be or not to be’ cream of pumpkin, likewise you wouldn’t expect to find a Chéngyǔ to fit mundane everyday occurrences. Instead, think of these more as literary quotations, appropriate for civilized conversation and interesting for their own sake.
In this post I’ve researched some wise yet useful Chéngyǔ to help contribute to your arsenal, in the hope that you’ll find this interesting and maybe even practical.
Resource: see Olle Linge’s article on learning Chéngyǔ right for some great tips on how to integrate these Chinese expressions into your overall Chinese language studies.
Chéngyǔ Relevant to Chinese Language Students
To “give up halfway” or leave something unfinished. Particularly valuable for Chinese language students. With Chinese the learning curve is steep, but persevere and it gets easier and easier. Stick with it; don’t 半途而废 bàntú’érfèi and you’ll reach a useful level of Chinese quicker than you expected.
豁然开朗 Huò rán kāi lǎng
One day on your Chinese journey you’ll probably find yourself in a small 饭馆 (restaurant) or chatting with some locals in a bar. Without really consciously thinking about it you’ll handle the business at hand – whether it’s ordering your favorite dish or debating the merits of leading football players – and only afterwards you’ll realize the whole conversation was in Chinese!
This is an example of the kind of ‘sudden ‘flash of understanding’ that will help make it clear how much you’ve already learned. Just don’t 半途而废 bàntú’érfèi before you get there!
不可思议 Bù kě sī yì
Inconceivable, unfathomable, unimaginable. Before you started studying, you or your friends may have thought that a foreigner learning to speak fluent Chinese was 不可思议 bù kě sī yì. But hey, now you know better!
孰能生巧 Shú néng shēng qiǎo
Angel Huang from MandarinHQ emailed me to suggest this essential addition to this section. The Chinese for “practice makes perfect” this as an important reminder when learning any skill, and of course fits learning Mandarin too.
Other Useful Chéngyǔ: Politics and Current Affairs
花言巧语 Huā yán qiǎo yǔ
Flowery but insincere language. Pretty but opportunistic speech. Can you think of a politician to whom this quotation may be relevant? Of course not. But keep it in your back pocket just in case.
Literally ‘to cover your ears whilst stealing a bell.’ To bury your head in the sand and deliberately hide yourself from reality. I love the imagery of this one, and it’s worth dwelling on.
To confuse or pass off fish eyes for pearls. Relevant not just for politics but also for many of the fake markets that crop up across China. If someone is trying to ‘pass off fish eyes for pearls’ best hold tight to your purse strings and bargain hard.
Other Useful Chéngyǔ: Love and Romance
The Chinese version of “love at first sight” and practically a literal translation / equivalent of the English version.
To love too much to part with. Relevant to a lover, or perhaps more prosaically to an item someone might be obsessed with. Have a friend who can’t bear to be without their iPhone? Then 爱不释手 fits the situation perfectly.
“Radishes and cabbages, each have their own love.”
Not a traditional four character Chéngyǔ, but more of a nice saying / phrase. Essentially the Chinese version of ‘you love who you love,’ and there’s someone / something for everyone. A lovely wee idiom.
自相矛盾 Zì xiāng máo dùn
I asked Olle Linge of Hacking Chinese for his favorite Chéngyǔ, and this was his suggestion. Translated as ‘to contradict yourself’ the first two characters, 自相 zì xiāng, mean ‘self’ whilst 矛盾 máo dùn literally mean ‘spear’ and ‘shield’ respectively. This Chinese expression comes from an old Chinese story where a man selling swords and shields at a market claimed first that his spears were so sharp that they could pierce through any armor. He then claimed that his shields were so strong they could resist any blow, thus contradicting himself. From that story ‘spear and shield’ has become synonymous for contradiction.
What’s your favorite Chéngyǔ? If you can’t get enough of these Chinese sayings that help you get some insight into Chinese culture, head over to these Chinese phrases that reveal aspects of Chinese culture.
By Nathan Thomas – marketing coordinator at Hutong School, frequently lost New Zealander in Shanghai and author of Intrepid Times travel blog.
When researching Chéngyǔ for this article I relied on a range of online sources, including:
- A Quora Thread, particularly answers from Alan Park, Brad Patterson, Jason Li and Todd Morris
- The ever excellent FluentU blog
- PeraPera popup dictionary to help with translations
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