I thought I’d write a small piece on idioms and my thoughts on them.
A Chengyu (成語) is a form of idiomatic expression. They usually consist of four characters, but of course some are longer. Many Chengyu are used in everyday conversation, these examples are common and could be viewed as catchphrases. Here are some examples;
自由自在 – zi4 you2 zi2 zai4 – lit. free and easy; carefree/leisurely
首屈一指 – shou3 qu1 yi1 zhi3 – second to none/outstanding
一分爲二 – yi1 fen1 wei2 er4 – lit. one divides into two; there are two sides to everything/to see both sb’s good points and shortcomings
There are thousands of phrases like these ones. They are great if you are looking to improve your oral Chinese as after you have learned a few you will begin to listen out for them in daily conversations. I used to learn one a day, and jot down new ones in a little notepad. There is usually an interesting story behind the most common chengyus that can help you remember.
Others Chengyus are used in works of literature to enrich the imagery and conveyance of stylistic expression. Some Chinese families even hang them as works of calligraphy on their walls, or etch them into their paintbrushes and adopt them as personal maxims. It’s also not uncommon to see Chinese businesses adopting a chengyu they feel represents their company’s image.
The best thing about Chengyu’s is many of them can be translated to English phrases, sometimes not directly but there is usually an equivalent English phrase. For example:
集腋成裘 – ji2 ye4 cheng2 qiu2 – lit. many hairs make a fur coat; many a mickle makes a muckle.
雨過天晴 – yu3 guo4 tian1 qing1 – lit. sky clears after the rain; every cloud has a silver lining.
冰山一角 – bing1 shan1 yi1 jiao3 – tip of the iceberg
The thing about learning Chengyus is they are all about personal preference. Different strokes for different folks. For me personally, some of chengyus make little sense as they express a meaning that is unique in Chinese culture. Yet, they are good for ‘showing’ off your Chinese. You can whip out a few at a business dinner or at a meeting to impress.
Some chengyus have variants, depending on where you go in China and dialects etc. For instance, the Chengyu 一成不變 (yi1 cheng2 bu4 bian4) meaning stuck in a rut/always the same, changes its meaning when translated into Cantonese. Cantonese speakers, especially Hong Kong residents use 一生不變 (yi1 sheng1 bu4 bian4 – yat sung bat bin) which conveys a good meaning of permanence and stability.
Learning the many different chengyus is a difficult task, so 加油！
只要成功夫深鐵杵磨成針 – If you work at it hard enough, you can grind an iron bar into a needle.
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