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)”

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