Would you rather…
- Be oblivious while everyone’s laughing at a Chinese joke, or
- Suddenly laugh out loud while everyone else raises their eyebrows at you?
Whichever you choose, both scenarios can only mean one thing: a-w-k-w-a-r-d.
Even if you’ve mastered your difficult grammar structures long ago and are well on your way to fluency, you might have missed out on those wonderful four-character Chinese idioms, chengyu.
What’s so beautiful about them is that chengyu make use of simple characters that—when put together—could refer to something that’s totally unrelated to the individual characters.
Many people may skip learning learning chengyu thinking that it’s unnecessary, but that’s a big no-no. Unknown to many, chengyu are already an inherent part of the Chinese language. So if you want to be a great Chinese speaker, it’s best to learn some chengyu.
Why You Should Learn Chengyu
If you’re still deliberating whether or not you should start learning chengyu, here are a few good reasons to help you out.
- It’s practical. Chengyu and Chinese culture are connected at the hip. You may have already heard a few chengyu, like 不可思议 (bù kĕ sī yì – unimaginable), 全力以赴 (quán lì yĭ fù – going all-out) or 理所当然 (lĭ suŏ dāng rán – as to be expected). They sound familiar, right? These are chengyu. You’ll realize that they’re used more frequently than you thought.
- You’ll sound like a native. No matter how knowledgeable you are about the Chinese language, it often feels like you can never be as fluent as you want to be. If you can form a few sentences, they probably sound elementary, which is a downside when you’re using Chinese for business. But if you throw in a few chengyu here and there, people will think you’re as good as a native!
- It’s a great step in advancing your Chinese studies. Once you know the basics of the Chinese language, it’s always best to go a step further. You can do this by learning chengyu. You’ll be amazed at how the idioms are formed, their back stories and the wisdom of the Chinese people.
Tips on Learning Chengyu
Now that you’re set on learning the wonderful Chengyu, here are a few tips to get you started.
- One at a time: Take it slow. These idioms are difficult to digest when you force them into your memory all at once. So try learning one chengyu a day. Learn how they were formed, and their back story. Most of the chengyu come from an old man’s quote or a literary piece. By learning one at a time, you’ll be able to appreciate the idioms slowly.
- Sentences: Reading sample sentences are the best way to learn chengyu. These will help you understand the idioms and teach you how you can use them in your conversations.
- Practice: Nothing beats practicing what you’ve learned. Don’t just read them and promise yourself that you’ll use them one day, make use of them today! Chengyu are beautiful, and it wouldn’t do them justice if you didn’t use them.
In fact, the best way to practice chengyu is to see them in context in authentic Chinese situations. For this I recommend FluentU!
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
In the meantime, we’ll share ten such idioms below.
10 Slick Chengyu You Oughta Know
There are so many chengyu out there, so here are ten of our favorites. Use the sample sentences to become more comfortable with each idiom.
1. 一鸣惊人 (yī míng jīng rén)
一鸣惊人 means to become famous overnight. 一鸣 means one sound or one chirp and 惊人 is synonymous to surprising. Literally, the phrase means a sound that surprises people. So figuratively, it refers to becoming famous overnight.
zhēn liăo bù qĭ! shéi huì xiăng dào tā huì yī míng jīng rén.
(Amazing! Who would have thought he’d become famous overnight!)
2. 一丝不苟 (yī sī bù gŏu)
一丝不苟 refers to being meticulous, never careless. 一丝 means a strand and 不苟 means to not be careless. It’s usually used to describe a person who is never careless in anything that he or she does. So, this person is one to never miss out even a single strand or a single thing.
tā duì měi jiàn shì dōu shì yī sī bù gŏu.
(He’s always meticulous in every single thing he does.)
3. 自相矛盾 (zì xiāng máo dùn)
自相矛盾 means to contradict oneself. 矛盾 means a contradiction, so if you include 自, which is self, you’ll get a self-contradiction.
zhè zhŏng rén bù zhí dé xiāng xìn. tā shuō de mĕi jù huà zǒng shì zì xiāng máo dùn.
(People like him are not worth trusting. He’s always contradicting his every word.)
4. 多才多艺 (duō cái duō yì)
多才多艺 means multi-talented. 才 and 艺 both refer to skill or talent. Since 多 means plenty, this chengyu refers to someone who is extremely talented.
yŏu jī huì xué jiù jìn liàng ràng tā qù xué, yĭ hòu nĭ ér zi jiù huì chéng wéi duō cái duō yì de rén.
(You should let your son learn whenever there’s an opportunity so that he’ll grow up to become a multi-talented individual.)
5. 独一无二 (dú yī wú èr)
独一无二 refers to something that is unique. 独 means only and 无 means none. Literally, this chengyu means that there is only one and there is no number two.
tā yòu piào liàng yòu néng gàn. jiăn zhí shì shì jiè shàng dú yī wú èr!
(She’s beautiful and talented. There’s really no one like her in this world.)
6. 左右为难 (zuŏ yòu wéi nán)
左右为难 means to be in a dilemma or in a difficult situation. 左右 means left and right. If you are having difficulty going left or right, that means you are caught up in a tight situation and cannot find a way out.
怎么办? 我实在想不通. 真让我左右为难.
zĕn me bàn? wŏ shí zài xiăng bù tōng, zhēn rang wŏ zuŏ yòu wéi nán.
(What to do? I’m in a dilemma. I simply can’t make up my mind.)
7. 塞翁失马 (sài wēng shī mă)
塞翁失马 means a blessing in disguise. It is used to refer to the silver lining after a dark cloud. It’s like finding something good that is totally unexpected, like when you’re in the midst of a setback or a misfortune.
他生病住院时和他的护士恋爱了, 真是塞翁失马, 焉知非福啊!
tā shēng bìng zhù yuàn shí hé zhào gù tā de hù shì liàn ài le, zhēn shì sài wēng shī mă, yān zhī fēi fú a!
(He was hospitalized for a sickness and fell in love with his nurse there. What a blessing in disguise!)
8. 一箭双雕 (yī jiàn shuāng diāo)
一箭双雕 is similar to killing two birds with one stone. 双雕 means two vultures and 一箭 means an arrow. So literally, it means killing two vultures with one arrow. It’s a bit different than what we’re used to, but the essence is still the same. It means achieving two things at the same time with just a single action.
zhè tào fāng àn jí kě yǐ mǎn zú kè hù yāo qiú , yòu néng dǎ jī jìng zhēng duì shǒu , jiǎn zhí shì yī jiàn shuāng diāo.
(This plan can satisfy consumer needs and give the competitors a blow. It’s like killing two birds with one stone!)
9. 二话不说 (èr huà bù shuo)
二话不说 literally means there’s no need to say anything further. It’s used when someone would do something immediately without the need for the other to repeat the request. It’s like doing something without a second thought.
tā èr huà bù shuo, jiù bă qián jiè gĕi le wǒ.
(Without a second thought, he lent me some money.)
10. 破镜重圆 (pò jìng chóng yuán)
破镜重圆 means to reunite after a long time. 破镜 refers to a broken mirror and 重圆 refers to becoming complete again. It is based upon a myth that there were two lovers who were separated during the war. Each one of them carries half of the mirror. When fate finally allowed them to reunite, the mirrors once again became complete.
tā men fēn shŏu le hěn duō nián hòu, hái shì pò jìng chóng yuán le.
(After breaking up for many years, in the end, they still got back together.)
And there we have it, ten interesting chengyu to get you started! If you love this list and want to learn more chengyu, check out our other chengyu posts.
If you want to have an even more thorough understanding of all the practical chengyu out there, check out this free e-book of 50 essential chengyu that FluentU has put together for you. Enjoy!
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