Essential Chengyu: The best way to learn Chinese? 破釜沉舟(sink your boats)!

For our second post in our series on Need to Know Chengyu (Chinese idiomatic expressions usually 4 characters long), we will be covering a chengyu that is near and dear to our entrepreneurial and Chinese learning hearts: 破釜沉舟 (pòfǔchénzhōu).

The next time you want to express your resolve and determination to study Chinese, instead of saying 我很努力 (“I try hard”) use 破釜沉舟. 破釜沉舟basically means to “pull out all the stops and fully commit to a course of action,” but literally means to “destroy your cauldrons and sink your boats.” It’s inspired by a general who forced his soldiers to destroy their food as well as their transportation home. Victory became the only option.

A breakdown of the characters in 破釜沉舟:

破 (pò): to destroy or break (eg. 打破,破裂)

釜 (fǔ): a cauldron or large pot (not commonly used)

沉 (chén): to sink (eg. 下沉)

舟 (zhōu): a boat (sounds more literary and is less commonly used than 船; 舟 also sounds smaller and basic)

Observing 破釜沉舟 “in the wild” shows that it has 2 main usages.

Usage 1) Noun + ~: “X is burning their boats and going all out..”

Example A) “奥巴马政府终于。。。~,向华尔街宣战”

àobamǎ zhèngfǔ zhōngyú 。。。~, xiàng huáěrjiē xuānzhàn

“The Obama administration is finally… burning its boats and declaring war on Wall Street”

Example B) “诺基亚~挺 Windows Phone”

“nuò jī yà ~tǐng Windows Phone”

“Nokia is burning its boats and supporting the Windows Phone”

Usage 2) ~地 Verb: to do X in the manner of burning one’s boats

Example C) “我们要~地落实党中央提出的科学发展观”

wǒmen yào ~ de luòshí dǎngzhōngyāng tíchū de kēxuéfāzhǎn guān

“We need to (in the manner of burning our boats) fulfill the Party Central Committee’s concept of scientific development”

Example D) “成绩差也~地拼一次吧!”

“chéngjī chà yě ~ de pīn yīcì ba !”

“Even if our grades suck, let’s give it our best shot (as if we were burning our boats)”

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.

Experience Chinese immersion online!

7 Responses to Essential Chengyu: The best way to learn Chinese? 破釜沉舟(sink your boats)!

  1. Saeyoon August 30, 2011 at 9:47 pm #

    OMG. I love learning chengyu’s and being able to see recent articles which use them! I will sink my boat to master Chinese. Thank you for the helpful blog.

  2. Alan August 30, 2011 at 10:33 pm #

    Thanks Saeyoon – glad to hear that you love chengyu’s as much as we do! I have to admit I’m giddy to receive our first response on the blog. :) As long as you find it helpful we’ll keep blogging away!

  3. David Wertime September 6, 2011 at 3:40 am #

    I love the focus on “in the wild” use (i.e., the only use that matters to the vast majority of learners). Better yet is the link to real-life examples, providing not only proof of the term’s use but a reading list for those of looking to practice our reading skills. Great work.

    • Alan September 6, 2011 at 11:26 am #

      Thanks Dave! Please help spread the word! :)

  4. Ryan P. April 16, 2012 at 9:55 pm #

    I just found this website…wow…looks like I’m going to be spending some time on here.

    zhege wangzhan xian de feichang youyong!! (seems very useful)– pinyin will have to suffice-for some reason my characters aren’t working :(

    • Alan April 17, 2012 at 5:51 pm #

      Thanks a lot Ryan! That means a lot to us!


  1. Hot on Weibo: Top 7 Olympic Champion Tweets (part 1) - August 1, 2012

    […] are going to great lengths and exerting tremendous effort to learn […]