May 21, 2015

Guest post: Chinese four-character idioms 成語 - Chengyu.

By Yang Yang.

Chengyu (“Chinese idioms” or “Four-Character Idioms”) are a special form of Chinese idioms, consisting of exactly 4 characters, which are derived from ancient literature. They are quite extensively used in the Chinese langauge and in a way can be compared to morale messages in Aesoph’s fables. 

If you are a beginner of Mandarin, Chengyu can be a little hard to understand. It’s natural, because characters used in them are often very rare and the grammar of Chengyu is Classical Chinese grammar.  It is not necessary for a beginner to know any Chengyu, but they are used quite frequently by native speakers both in writing and speaking and knowing a few later will be very helpful.

The stories behind the two Chengyu we picked for this article are quite interesting we think, and are happy to share them with you.

Old man loses a horse


English equivalent: Blessing in disguise

sài - border 
wēng - old man
shī - to lose
- horse      

Note: Since Chengyu are written in a very old language, some characters have different meanings than they have today. 

An old man lived with his only son at the border of the country. They kept horses but, one day, a horse went missing, having crossed over the border.

The old man was not bothered by the loss and, a few months later, however, not only did the missing horse return home safely, but it also brought back another horse from the neighboring country.

One day, when the old man’s son was riding the new horse, he fell off and broke his leg badly and became unable to ride; the old man was not perturbed by the accident. 

A year later, the neighboring country sent soldiers across the border and all of the young and able men were called into the army to fight against them — and eventually most of them were killed. The old man’s son however was not called, because he was unable to ride.

This expression is therefore used to remind us to take life in their stride because things aren't really as good (or bad) as they seem.

Example sentence: 

没有得到那份工作其实是塞翁失马, 因为现在我已经得到一份好得多的工作。

I am actually lucky that I did not get that job, because now I have a better one. 

Dongshi imitates a frown


东施 Dōngshī - Dongshi (a person’s name)
xiào - imitate
pín - frown

Xishi was a Chinese beauty in the Spring and Autumn period (770 BC - 476 BC) and even though she dressed in plain clothes, everyone admired her beauty. Another, rather unattractive woman in the village called Dongshi, desperately wanted to become more beautiful. 

One day, Xishi felt pain in her chest, she frowned and held her hand by her breast to ease the pain. Dongshi saw this and copied Xishi, because she thought, that whatever Xishi would do was beautiful and thought it would make her more beautiful too. It however only made her look uglier. 

So, whilst the literal meaning is “Dong Shi imitates a frown”, the generally accepted meaning refers to copying someone’s actions to benefit from them, but instead ending up with a negative result. In other words, copying someone in the wrong way only makes things worse. 

Example sentence:


She doesn’t look beautiful, and no matter how hard she tries to copy others, the result is just like when Dongshi imitated a frown. 

We hope you found these two stories interesting. As you learn more Mandarin in the future, you are likely to encounter Chengyu in more formal Chinese articles such as newspapers, magazines, textbooks. We hope you enjoy learning Mandarin! Happy studying!

Yang is a serial web entrepreneur whose latest website is Learn Mandarin Now. Yang is passionate about learning new languages and cultures and recently published research about the preferred ways 50 international bloggers learn Chinese.

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