An idiom is a figure of speech that isn’t taken literally. For example, in English we have idioms such as “don’t let the cat out of the bag,” and “to have a cake and eat it too”, when we are not really talking about letting cats out of bags, or eating a piece of cake.
There are numerous proverbs, sayings and idioms in every language. But why do I want to devote a whole article to Chinese idioms if it is such a normal linguistic phenomenon? Because, in Chinese language and culture, idioms are extremely important. They are often referred to as Chengyu (成语 (cheng2yu3)), which literally means “set phrases”. According to the most stringent definition, there are about 5,000 chengyu in the Chinese language, though I have seen some dictionaries that list over 20,000.
Chengyu usually consist of four characters, and they are mostly derived from ancient literature. The meaning of each chengyu usually surpasses the sum of the meanings carried by those four characters, and chengyu are often intimately linked with the myth, story, poem or historical fact from which they were derived. Chengyu do not follow the usual grammatical structure and syntax of the modern Chinese spoken language, and are instead highly compact and synthetic. Unless you know the story and its common usage, a Chengyu will sound like random nonsense not only to a foreigner but also to Chinese people themselves. That’s why when students in China learn chengyu in school as part of the classical curriculum, they also need to study the context from which chengyu was born.
Every Chinese idiom is like a little story full of wisdom and life. But these four characters most of the time reflect the moral behind the story rather than the story itself. For example, the phrase "破釜沉舟" (po4 fu3 chen2 zhou1) literally means "break the woks and sink the boats." It was based on a historical account where General Xiang Yu ordered his troops to destroy all cooking utensils and boats after crossing a river into the enemy's territory. He won the battle because of this "no-retreat" strategy. Similar phrases are known in the West, such as "burning bridges" or "Crossing the Rubicon".
However, not all Chinese chengyu are born of an old fable. In fact, many of them are free of any metaphorical nuances. For example, a chengyu “言而无信” (yan2 er2 wu2 xin4) literally "speaks yet (is) without trust")), refers to an individual who cannot be trusted despite what he says, or essentially a deceitful person. The idiom itself is not derived from a specific occurrence from which a moral may be explicitly drawn; instead, it is succinct in its original meaning and would likely be intelligible to an individual learned in formal written Chinese.
Chinese idioms can also serve as a guide through Chinese culture. In addition to the fact that behind most idioms exists an interesting tale, Chinese idioms also teach us about motifs that were common in Chinese ancient literature and about historical cultural customs. For example, idioms which contain nature motifs (such as mountains- 山 (shan1), water- 水 (shui3) or moon-月(yue4) are numerous and contain interesting metaphors, while military and government related themes which appear frequently in idioms lead to better understanding of cultural customs. Even more evident are the moral values which many idioms promote, both in past and present days. Some classical literature masterpieces are known as the producers of dozens of idioms, such as the Four Great Classical Novels (四大名著): (Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, Water Margin and Dream of the Red Chamber).
Chinese people simply love to use chengyu in their daily life. It is a sign of scholarship and erudition. A foreigner who knows a lot of chengyu and implies them under the right circumstances will arouse deep admiration. I strongly recommend anyone who seriously decides to learn Chinese to go and buy a good chengyu dictionary. A regular dictionary usually contains 5,000 chengyu with detailed definitions and examples in Chinese. There are some dictionaries that also include translation to a foreign language such as English, Russian or Japanese.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article about chengyu and learned a bit about Chinese culture. To finish the article, let me leave you with some Chinese chengyu and their English equivalents:
1) 虎父无犬子 (hu3 fu4 wu2 quan3 zi3)
Literally: A tiger father has no canine sons.
Moral: People who are closely related are similar
English equivalent: A chip off the old block; an apple does not fall far from the tree.
2) 祸不单行 (huo4 bu4 dan1 xing1)
Literally: Bad things never walk alone
English equivalent: Misery loves company
3) 塞翁失马 (sai4 weng1 shi1 ma3)
Literally: The squire at the frontier lost his horse, but the horse eventually came back bringing some other horses with it
English equivalent: Sometimes bad luck is a blessing in disguise
4) 活到老，学到老 (huo2dao4 lao3 xue2dao4 lao3)
Literally: Learn all your life
English equivalent: Live and learn