Explaining eight common Chinese idioms (“chéngyǔ”)

academics cantonese chinese High School language learning mandarin chinese

Statistical Mediation & Moderation in Psychological Research (38)“Chéngyǔ” (成语) are Chinese idioms that usually occur in groups of four characters and often originate from old fables in classical Chinese writing. As a testament to China’s long history and rich culture, chéngyǔ have persisted as a fundamental component of modern Chinese language in both formal writing and in everyday language. There are over 5000 chéngyǔ, with the average Chinese person today probably knowing around 200-400 of them. You really can’t claim to know Chinese without knowing some chéngyǔ!

In the spirit of lucky number eight in Chinese culture, here are eight of the most common chéngyǔ you’ll definitely find in Chinese TV, in Chinese households, and in everyday Chinese language. Use these next time to impress your Chinese teacher, tutor, friend, or loved one!

1. Idioms you might hear on TV

Love at first sight: 一见钟情 (yī jiàn zhōng qíng)

  • Literal translation: Love at first sight
  • Explanation: This one’s pretty self-explanatory with a direct English translation. You’ll definitely see this saying used in Chinese romance movies and dramas!

something or someone you’ll never forget: 难以忘怀 (nán yǐ wàng huái)

  • Literal translation: To be hard to forget
  • Explanation: Another one you’ll find in romantic dramas. You can use this to express a memory, person, or experience that left an impression so deep you’ll never forget it.

Armchair strategist: 纸上谈兵 (zhǐ shàng tán bīng)

  • Literal translation: To make military strategies on paper
  • Explanation: You might find this one in historical dramas, such as those telling the stories of well-known Chinese military strategists like Sun Tzu and Cao Cao. This term could be used to refer to Sun Tzu and Cao Cao’s lesser adversaries who might make elaborate strategies and schemes without any practical experience. Nowadays, the term is used more generally to refer to people who can talk the talk but don’t have the practical skill to back up their claims.

2. Idioms a Chinese parent might say to their child

When you’re a big mess: 乱七八糟 (luàn qī bā zāo)

  • Literal translation: A mess of 7s and 8s
  • Explanation: An example sentence you might hear from a Chinese mom: “你的房间真是乱七八糟!” which means “Your room is such a mess!” This is an incredibly common idiom to refer to a big mess, whether that be your room or your study habits (fortunately Cambridge Coaching can help with the latter J).

When you’re really distracted: 三心二意 (sān xīn èr yì)

  • Literal translation: 3 hearts, 2 ideas
  • Explanation: When your heart’s in three different places and your brain’s scattered on more than one idea, there’s no way you can stay focused. Use this expression to refer to moments when someone is half-heartedly trying to do many different things and can’t do any of them well.

When you do something she/he can’t understand: 不可思议(bù kě sī yì)

  • Literal translation: To be inconceivable
  • Explanation: This might (unfortunately) be used by a parent when their child decides to go into art or music instead of medicine, law, or business. While the idiom usually has a negative connotation in modern language, it can also be used in the positive sense to describe something unbelievably incredible.

3. Idioms with fun stories and imagery

Trying to teach a cow: 对牛弹琴 (duì niú tán qín)

  • Literal translation: To play the qin (a traditional Chinese instrument) to a cow.
  • Explanation: Can you imagine a cow trying to appreciate the beautiful music of a qin? If not, then you’ll understand this idiom, which means to attempt to express something to someone who is incapable of appreciating or understanding what you’re saying. A similar English expression is to cast pearls before swine or to preach to deaf ears.

Like a frog at the bottom of a well: 井底之蛙 (jǐng dǐ zhī wā)

  • Literal translation: A frog at the bottom of a well
  • Explanation: In this fable, a frog thinks his life at the bottom of a well is the most wonderful thing ever, with the freedom to splash around and play as he wishes and with an incredible view of the sky above. Little does he know that the sea and sky outside his well are much greater, vaster, and more beautiful. Analogously, this idiom can be used to refer to someone with a narrow mindset or worldview.



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