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What You Need to Know About Chinese Chengyu


If you’re learning Chinese, sooner or later you’ll come across a four-character phrase that looks really strange; or just plain doesn’t make sense. Congratulations, you’ve probably hit a 成语 (chéng yǔ)  !

So what exactly is a 成语 (chéng yǔ) ?

Usually translated as “Chinese idioms”, defining 成语 (chéng yǔ)  is easier said than done.  

Essentially, 成语 (chéng yǔ)  are set phrases made of four characters. But, there are literally thousands of them with a huge variety of meanings; and, confusingly, while all 成语 (chéng yǔ)  are four-character Chinese idioms, not all four-character Chinese idioms are 成语 (chéng yǔ) .

(And, puzzlingly, different dictionaries have different definitions, so a phrase listed as a 成语 (chéng yǔ)  in one dictionary may not be in another!)

As they often originate from classical novels or ancient Chinese history, it’s sometimes very difficult to work out what a particular 成语 (chéng yǔ)  means without understanding the context – just imagine an English language learner encountering the expressions “Achilles’ heel”, or “green-eyed monster” for the first time.

Challenging and peculiar, 成语 (chéng yǔ)  are often seen as a nuisance for Chinese learners, and even many advanced learners avoid them like the plague.

(I’m also guilty – whenever I see a new 成语 (chéng yǔ)  in my Mandarin textbook, my first thought is “not again…!”)

Don't avoid them! :) Read about these Chinese Idioms that are also used in English!

I’ll be the first to admit that spending your precious study time memorizing obscure historical 成语 (chéng yǔ)  is not a great idea. But, knowledge of 成语 (chéng yǔ)  is a sure sign of a sophisticated understanding of Chinese language and culture. Learning some of the most common ones will immediately make your Mandarin sound better, and really impress your Chinese friends and colleagues.

That’s why I’ve put together a list of five great 成语 (chéng yǔ)  for beginners – more intuitive and easier to learn than most examples, these will slot right into your everyday vocabulary.

1. 乱七八糟 (luàn qī bā zāo) – a total mess

This is what my desk looks like when a deadline is approaching. Literally “disorder seven eight mess”, this expression apparently comes from two particularly chaotic periods in China’s history: the first during the Western Han dynasty’s “seven kingdoms” revolt, in which seven princes rebelled against the Emperor’s attempts to increase central government control, and the second during the Jin Dynasty, in which eight members of the royal family were all fighting for power.

Now, you can use it to describe anything that’s in a mess, whether it’s a cluttered desk, an inefficient administrative system, or a complicated romantic situation.

这张书桌乱七八糟 (zhè zhāng shū zhuō luàn qī bā zāo) this desk is a total mess!

2. 笨鸟先飞 (bèn niǎo xiān fēi) – stupid birds need to start early

Literally “stupid birds fly first”, this expression talks about the fact that less-skilled people need to put more effort in to succeed.

Great for deflecting compliments (don’t forget, modesty is an important virtue in China!), this phrase is usually used self-deprecatingly. When someone comments on how my Mandarin study seems to be paying off, I say: 我就是笨鸟先飞 (Wǒ jiù shì bèn niǎo xiān fēi)  – I’m just a stupid bird flying early – i.e. I need to put in a lot of effort because I’m not naturally talented.

3. 人山人海 (rén shān rén hǎi) – super crowded 

For example: 地铁里人山人海 (dì tiě lǐ rén shān rén hǎi)  – the subway station is totally packed with people!

This wonderfully descriptive expression literally means “people mountain people sea”. It perfectly captures how Shanghai’s public transport system feels during rush hour (and pretty much any place in any major Chinese city at any time).

Learn more about this common Chinese sentence structure here

4. 入乡随俗 (rù xiāng suí sú) – "when in Rome, do as the Romans do" 

Literally “when you enter a village, follow the local customs”, this phrase is less abstract than the English equivalent “when in Rome…” – i.e. when you go to a new place, adopt its language and habits.

I use it to explain why I want to speak Chinese even though my conversation partner speaks English: 我们在中国, 入乡随俗吧 (Wǒ men zài zhōng guó rù xiāng suí sú ba) – we’re in China, let’s speak Chinese.

5. 孤芳自赏 (gū fāng zì shǎng) – a narcissistic flower 

This 成语 (chéng yǔ)  is for when you get caught staring at your own reflection in the mirror. Literally ““a lone flower in love with its own fragrance”, this expression sounds amusing but is generally used to imply that someone is a narcissist, or thinks that they’re better than everyone else.

For example, 这是一只孤芳自赏的小猫 (zhè shì yī zhī gū fāng zì shǎng de xiǎo māo) – this kitten is in love with itself (and why wouldn’t it be, it’s adorable!)

Do you know any other great 成语 (chéng yǔ)? What’s your opinion on whether learning 成语 (chéng yǔ) is useful? Share it with us in the comments section!