Spoiler – 成语 (chéngyǔ) = Chinese wisdom packaged compactly in a “nutshell” (usually only four characters long)
In your Chinese studies you will likely come across 成语 (chéngyǔ). Here is how I think of it.
Ancient Chinese Pearls of Wisdom
Imagine the Chinese sages and philosophers of old. They devoted their lives to study, the accumulation of wisdom and the finessing of Chinese culture.
However even sages are but mere mortals and thus have a limited lifespan.
As one who has accumulated a lifetime of knowledge would feel, the next main concern is how to preserve that knowledge and pass it down to the next generation.
That is why the Chinese sages of old were such prolific writers and indeed Chinese literature extends thousands of years into the past, a treasure trove of insight into a past long gone.
But copious writing was not enough to spread such a wealth of wisdom and knowledge.
Thus was 成语 (chéngyǔ) born.
Imagine if I could communicate to you a rich and deep lesson which perhaps took me years to learn, but now I have synthesized it for you into just a few words.
And that’s exactly what 成语 (chéngyǔ) is.
成语 (chéngyǔ) is an information dense phrase or idiomatic expression passed down over generations that are typically only 4 characters long and hence very easy to write or say. But yet they often communicate a meaning far deeper than just their four component characters.
Many have a long history and come from ancient times or literature and thus the context of each 成语 (chéngyǔ) must be learned alongside the pinyin and underlying characters or they will likely hold zero relevance.
Before I give some examples which will make things much clearer, here is a formal definition.
According to Wikipedia:
Chengyu (traditional Chinese: 成語; simplified Chinese: 成语; pinyin: chéngyǔ; literally: ‘[already] made/formed words/speech’) are a type of traditional Chinese idiomatic expression, most of which consist of four characters. Chengyu were widely used in Classical Chinese and are still common in vernacular Chinese writing and in the spoken language today. According to the most stringent definition, there are about 5,000 chéngyǔ in the Chinese language, though some dictionaries list over 20,000. Chéngyǔ are considered the collected wisdom of the Chinese culture, and contain the experiences, moral concepts, and admonishments from previous generations of Chinese.
成语 (chéngyǔ) examples
So now you know at least how I personally think of 成语 (chéngyǔ), here are some examples.
塞翁失马 (sài wēng shī mǎ)
It literally translates to:” Sai Weng (a guy’s name) loses his horse.” But it often is used to mean something like “a blessing in disguise.”
This is a good example of 成语 (chéngyǔ) where you need to understand the background story to understand what it means.
This is a good description of the Ancient Tale of Sai Weng. I personally treasure this as one of my favorite 成语 (chéngyǔ) because it has a very meaningful story behind it.
TLDR: Sai Weng owns several horses. One day his prized steed runs away and cannot be found. All the neighbors come and commiserate with him and tell him how unfortunate that is. Sai Weng simply replies, “Maybe.” Sai Weng has a son. One day his son breaks his leg while outside trying to ride and tame the new horse. Again, the neighbors come and commiserate with Sai Weng lamenting his misfortune. Sai Weng simply replies, “Maybe.” Soon after, the nation goes to war with the neighboring state. One of the king’s officers comes to town to recruit every able bodied male of age for the war effort. Sai Weng’s son does not get conscripted due to his broken leg. This turns out to be a long and bitter war with many young men dying.
Moral: life is uncertain. Things happen. Seemingly bad things can turn out good and seemingly good things may in fact be bad and you can never be too sure. Thus live life accordingly with this knowledge in mind.
掩耳盗铃 (yǎn ěr dào líng)
This translates to “plug/cover one’s ears while stealing a bell.” It means to deceive yourself, referring to people who try to cover up things that cannot be concealed. Think “the Emperor’s New Clothes.”
Here is the accompanying backstory. I found it pretty funny so I hope you have a chuckle:
A long time ago in ancient history, there once was a thief who went to somebody’s house to steal. He saw a big silver bell hanging in the courtyard.
The thief was overjoyed as he thought to himself that the silver bell would be worth a pretty penny. So he decided to carry this beautiful bell back home. But the bell was too big and heavy. No matter how hard he tried, he could not move it.
Suddenly an idea struck him. “There is only one way to solve the problem!”, he thought to himself. “I will break the silver bell into smaller parts so I can easily carry them home.” Thus the thief took out a big iron hammer, with which he struck the silver bell with all his might.
Naturally, this produced a very loud noise and even scared the thief. This led to his second “bright idea”. “I know! I will cover up my ears so I can no longer hear the sound.” Sure enough as he covered up his ears he could no longer hear any sound. The thief was pretty pleased with himself and figured that because he could not hear the sound of the bell, that no one else could hear it too! Feeling relieved, he began striking the bell again and again, one blow after another.
Of course, the sound of the bell was so loud that it could be heard at distant places. And thus the loud sounds led the entire neighborhood to come to the source of the sound thus catching the thief red-handed.
How good is that?
I am a fan of Douglas Adams’ hilarious work Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and this story reminds me of this particular passage from his book when he is describing how you can use a trusty towel to “avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-boggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you. Daft as a bush, but very ravenous).” Lol…😂
白手起家 (bái shǒu qǐ jiā)
This one is an example of a more straightforward 成语 (chéngyǔ). It is a case where you can deduce the meaning just from the characters itself which is not always the case.
白手 (bái shǒu) means empty-handed or with your bare hands
起家 (qǐ jiā) means to create a family business / make one’s fortune
Overall this means to make a fortune from scratch. Or as put by Drake, “started from the bottom now we’re here…” 😃
If you are interested you can read more about 成语 (chéngyǔ) here:
What do you think?
Are you still intimidated by 成语 (chéngyǔ) knowing how interesting it can be to learn about them?
What are some of your favorite 成语 (chéngyǔ)?
We would love to hear your thoughts on this so please leave a message in the comments below.
David & Nicole
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