Chengyu and you

English is abundant in idioms and proverbs, for example: “kill two birds with one stone”, “too many cooks spoil the broth”, and “woke up on the wrong side of the bed”. These are ingrained in our language, and we use them almost without thinking about their literal meanings.

Chinese also has an abundance of idioms, and one subset of them are particularly interesting: those called chéngyǔ (成语). Chengyu mostly come from ancient stories and Chinese fables, and most conservative estimates say that there are around 5,000 chengyu (though some claim the figure is closer to 20,000). To demonstrate just how many there are, a Chinese friend of mine told me that for each animal in the Chinese horoscope, a Chinese scholar could easily reel off 100 different chengyu.

The beauty of chengyu is their succinctness: the vast majority of them are 4 characters long. However, this means that unless you know the story behind the chengyu, at first hearing it’s likely you will have no clue what they’re about. Here are a few examples of chengyu, where they come from, and what they come to mean:

对牛弹琴 (duì niú tán qín): lit. “playing the lute to a cow”. It comes to mean somebody talking to the wrong audience, similar to English idioms “to cast pearls before swine”, or “to howl at the moon”. It comes from a story of a man who was a great lute player, and thought that he was so good that if he played to a cow it would appreciate the beauty of his music. However, it just carried on eating the grass.

老马识途 (lǎo mǎ shí tú): lit. “an old horse knows the way”. It comes to mean that experience should be valued, from a story about an army that lost its way on their return home, and the general ordered for several of the older horses to lead the army, who eventually led them home.

杀鸡吓猴 (shā jī xià hóu): lit. “to kill the chicken in front of the monkeys”. It comes to mean the act of scaring somebody by punishing somebody else, from a story about a man who raised monkeys. The monkeys were becoming more and more mischievous, so he killed a chicken in front of them to scare them into behaving.

三人成虎 (sān rén chéng hǔ): lit. “three men make a tiger”. It comes to mean that people will believe anything, no matter how ridiculous it seems, so long as it’s repeated enough times. It comes from a story about a high-ranking official who was trying to demonstrate to his king that the lies told about his corruption were false: if he told the king that a tiger was in the marketplace, he wouldn’t believe him; but if three men claimed to see the same tiger, the king would be inclined to agree.

望洋兴叹 (wàng yáng xīng tàn): lit. “to gaze at the ocean and sigh”. It comes to mean the act of being able to do nothing but sigh in the face of a mammoth task, or being powerless against somebody else’s strength.

There are chengyu for almost every occasion, and Chinese children grow up knowing many of them as naturally as we pick up our own idioms. Chengyu are fantastic in that every one has a story behind it, which gives even more of a glimpse into Chinese’s ancient culture.

You probably know some chengyu without even realizing it: for example, 卧虎藏龙 (wò hǔ cáng lóng), lit. “crouching tiger hidden dragon”. This refers to somebody who is unexpectedly talented or strong, even though they appear not to be. This explains why the famous kung fu/romance movie was named this way.

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