The Idiomatic Life


If you are Chinese, the chengyu, or “established speech,” need no introduction; if you’re not, the chengyu are ready-made phrases resembling English proverbs in their compressed wit and wisdom, a kind of folkloric shorthand. For instance, hei tian wu ri, black heaven no sun, refers to an extreme state of lawlessness, while qing tian pi li, blue sky thunderbolt, refers to an alarming surprise. Mastery of the chengyu – again, if you’re not Chinese – indicates a high level of fluency. If you’re an educated Chinese person, the ability to use hundreds of chengyu is expected.


Chengyu originate from the pre-Qin dynasty historical annals, the four Confucian classics, the teachings of philosophers, and the Book of Songs (Shu Jing). This last source provides a clue as to why the chengyu are four characters: the poems in the Book of Songs employ a four-character line and were hugely influential through the centuries. More generally, the chengyu are artifacts of the ancient literary Chinese language, wenyan, which was much more monosyllabic than modern Chinese, with a compressed, cryptic grammar in which one could say a great deal with four characters. (Not all Chinese sayings are four characters long, of course, but only those that are are considered chengyu.)

Book of Songs

Chengyu are more than facile metaphors; they often allude to a specific historical story, and some of the stories are complicated indeed. This is why Dr Richard King, professor of Chinese at the University of Victoria, says that using many chengyu in everyday speech not only makes one’s speech more colorful, but also displays a measure of erudition. King chooses his words carefully: a measure of erudition. If you want to use the chengyu brilliantly, you need to know the whole story, not just the mnemonic for the story.


Liang Zhigang, from Qingdao University, reminds us that it is one thing to know that wo xin chang dan, sleeping on firewood and tasting gall-bladder, describes a person of exceptional mettle who endures self-imposed hardships to strengthen his resolve, but quite another to know that the idiom springs from the real-life tenacity of the King of Yu, Goujian. His enemy, the King of Qu, Fuchai, captured Goujian during the Spring and Autumn Period. Goujian pretended to be loyal to Fuchai but he never forgot his humiliation. In order to make himself tougher, Goujian slept on firewood and tasted a gall-bladder before having dinner. Later, Goujian seized an opportunity to wipe out the State of Qu.

Sword of Goujian, Hubei Provincial Museum

Liang elaborated: “Since chengyu are often based on a description of previous situations, they tend to be limited by their “ready” interpretations (Goujian or so-and-so has true grit) which can potentially wipe out a unique idea or a different way to interpret the current situation. As such, overusing chengyu without clarifying the logic or the new idea, will lead to a limited effectiveness in communication.” In knowing the detailed story, one can more felicitously match the chengyu to the situation.

Other chengyu seem simpler, more like folk-tales, though they are allegories by pre-Qin dynasty philosophers like Laozi or Zhuangzi; some chengyu involving animals may remind English readers of Aesop’s fables. For instance, in hu jia hu wei, fox borrows tiger’s terror, a fox confronts a tiger and claims that he is the mightiest of animals and all are terrified of him. The tiger is skeptical, so the fox says, well, follow me into town and see what happens!


Since the chengyu often refer to hunting, fishing, agriculture, to simpler implements like bows and arrows, swords, axes, chariots, and brush calligraphy, they evoke the bygone features of an ancient and agrarian Chinese world. Shou zhu dai tu, guard stump wait rabbit (passively and foolishly waiting for a lucky windfall), tells the story of a lazy farmer who saw a rabbit charge past him and brain itself on a tree-stump. This is fantastic, thought the farmer. Why should I work hard to get food? I’ll just wait by this stump for another suicidal rabbit to come along.


The farmer starved to death.

The chengyu’s myriad formulations and their longevity are a testament to the breadth and depth of Chinese culture, and this is partly why Chinese people love them so much. When you use a chengyu, you can be sure that someone long ago has written or uttered the same words. Accordingly, using chengyu frequently is a mark of refinement, of a high wenming shuiping (cultural level).


Dr Karen Tang, also professor of Chinese at the University of Victoria, says that “using the chengyu is evidence of being well-read and erudite. It’s just like using big words in English; an educated person uses chengyu, especially the classical four-character phrases, naturally,” while Zeng Wenbo, a health economist in Canada, says “a person who uses lots of chengyu demonstrates superior eloquence. It usually gives people a general impression that this person is well educated, knowledgeable, or well-read.”

“It’s just like using big words in English; an educated person uses chengyu, especially the classical four-character phrases, naturally.”

Many of the chengyu fall into certain recognizable patterns, strengthening their meaning by duplication and repetition of characters. For instance, ma ma hu hu (horse horse tiger tiger – so-so, comme ci comme ca) is of the pattern AABB; xiang fang xiang cheng (opposition leads to success) is of the pattern ABAC and so are jin shan jin mei (absolutely perfect,) and ren shan ren hai, (human mountain, human sea, extremely crowded). Qi ma zhao ma, ride horse find horse (accept a job to look for a better one), follows the pattern ABCB, and so does qi lu mi lu, ride a mule seek a mule (to search for what one already has). Other patterns often involve contrasting or repeated numbers, as in yi xin yi yi, one heart one will (to put one’s whole heart into something), liang tou san mian, two heads three faces (to trick and flatter at the same time), and shuang nao yi jian, two birds one arrow (to kill two birds with one stone).

Ren shan ren hai

Chengyu can occasionally be used ceremonially. Yi lu ping an, one road peace safety, and yi feng shun xuan, one wind full sails, both mean bon voyage, the latter reserved for boat or plane trips. At international meetings si hai yi jia, four seas one family, is predictably trotted out. Sometimes the chengyu have shifted in usage towards such truisms and away from their original meaning. Take lao sheng chang tan, old scholar often says, which is now sometimes used to describe platitudes or “Sunday school truths,” the sort of overused cliché that people turn a deaf ear to. But the back-story actually reinforces the powerful wisdom of age-old sayings, as the old scholar in the tale, knowing two officials were corrupt, accurately predicted their gloomy futures when telling their horoscopes. One of the officials said, “Oh, don’t listen to his scholarly twaddle,” but soon after they were both executed for planning a coup.

I learned my first chengyu in a letter from a Beijing woman I loved. I love you tian ya hai jiao, she wrote, to the heaven’s expanse and the sea’s far corners, boundlessly. (There’s an ambiguity there; she may have also meant she loved me “from a great distance.”) But our love was more like hai shi shen lou, a mirage, because of her disapproving family. There were serious problems. Perhaps we were not men dang hu dui – our doors and windows didn’t match – because we came from different socio-economic backgrounds. In this fraught situation, the few chengyu I knew were of limited help. How did I really feel? Was it true that ai wu ji wu, love the roof, love its crows (that I should love her precisely because of these problems), or was I like ye gong hao long, Ye Gong loves dragons (pretending to love what I secretly feared)?

Tian ya hai jiao

In Canada, I was tortured by my options. Should I yuan chong jing po, restore our broken mirror and reunite, or remain with my daughter and wang zi cheng long, see her grow up to be a dragon? It was chin tui wei tu, a dilemma. I was both yi yi bu she, reluctant to leave the Beijing woman, but mindful that bu ke de jian, I couldn’t have both.


Soon our love changed into annoyance with and disappointment in each other, because shui mian ze yi and wu ji bi fan, the longer things continue without resolution, they turn into their opposites. I stayed in Canada. She told me that I ban tu er fei, quit halfway (Ouch!), while I think the whole affair was redolent of han dan xue bu, a tale about a young man who went to Handan to learn the graceful Handan way of walking, and forgot his own way of walking, and had to crawl all the way home.


All of which goes to show that the chengyu are not particularly useful for consistent guidance or crafting a coherent philosophy; they are more useful in talking about life than in negotiating it. Perhaps they suffice for zhi shang tan bing, armchair strategies. For the chengyu are often contradictory. After all, what is one to do? Po fu chen zhou, break the kettles and sink the boats (adopt an all-or-nothing strategy), or zhi nan er tui, retreat rather than risk defeat, or jiao tu san ku, be like the clever rabbit with three holes (have a fallback plan)? Is it true that cheng ren zhi mei, the superior man helps others to success, or cheng wang pai kou, the victor is justified and the loser vanquished? Should one zhi feng er shi, strike while the iron is hot, or be more like yu su bu da, do things step by step, because the more haste the less speed? Is it better to cong yi er zhong, to hold fast to old loyalties, or qi an tou ming, to renounce them in the cause of progress?

The chengyu are not particularly useful for consistent guidance or crafting a coherent philosophy; they are more useful for talking about life than negotiating it.

That said, one can discern in the chengyu a deep vein of Chinese thought that values caution, as in gua tian li xia, gourds in the field, plums beneath the tree (to take care that one’s actions are not misinterpreted); strategic patience, as in mang ren wu zhi, hurried men lack wisdom; respect for long-acquired knowledge, as in lao ma shi tu, old horse knows road; thrift and frugality, as in sheng chi jian yong, to scrimp and scrape; and moderation, as in guo you bu ji, going too far is as bad as not going far enough. The chengyu also abound in witty takedowns of foolish and self-defeating actions: xi zhai wang qi, moving house but forgetting the wife; zhu dou ran qi, burning pea-stalks to cook peas; and jie ze er yu, draining the pond to get the fish. In other words, the chengyu include many injunctions to not disturb the workings of the universe.


Unsurprisingly, some Chinese people favour certain chengyu because they agree with the values the idiom touts, or because experience has revealed the phrase’s truth. Thus, a particular chengyu has a special meaning for them. Zeng Wenbo always relied on wei yu chou mou, repair the house before it rains, even when he was a child, because he didn’t like to be caught off guard. Liang Zhigang’s favourite is xuan liang ci gu, (hang from beam, thorn in thigh) a story about a scholar so excessively diligent that he suspended himself from a beam and pricked his thigh with a thorn to stay awake while studying. He said this spirit of industry has helped people overcome many difficult situations.

Chinese students hooked up to IV drips whilst studying for the gaokao (national college entrance exams). Certainly a case of xuan liang ci gu.

The internet age has also seen the emergence of new pseudo-chengyu. The following inventions are popular on Chinese social media: ren jian bu zhai, which means life is hard enough, so there’s no need to expose certain things; lei jie bu ai, which means too tired to fall in love again; bu ming jue li, which means I don’t understand it, but I sense its awesomeness; and xi da pu ben, which is a radical abridgement of everyone is glad to see, everyone is pleased, everyone is celebrating, and everyone is running around to tell each other.


Cheng yu wan sui! May the chengyu last ten thousand years!


However, in this digital age, woe betide those who use the chengyu incorrectly. A couple of famous officials have made chengyu mistakes that went viral. In a 2016 G20 speech, Xi Jinping discussed agricultural business, tongshang kuannong. Unfortunately, he mispronounced 农 (nong), farming, as 衣 (yi), clothing, and there is a chengyu kuan yi jie dai which means “to undress.” California-based China Digital Times reported that Xi released a statement shortly afterwards in which he questioned why the ancient scribes had made the characters yi and nong so similar, banned all internet searches for the offending characters, inveighed against revealing costumes in any and all dramas, and also said, with authoritarian panache, “in the future, it is no longer possible for any of my speeches to cause me to have indecent associations or misspelled words.”

Woe betide those who use the chengyu incorrectly.

In a 2018 speech, Peking University President Lin Jianhua tried to use the chengyu li hong hu zhi – to have lofty and noble ideals like swans – but mispronounced hong hu (swan), as hong hao, which doesn’t mean anything specific, as it removes one-half of the term for “swan” and substitutes “big or bright.” Have big bird ideals? Huh? Netizens were quick to dub Lin the “principal of white letters” or “Principal Typo.” Lin was subsequently fired, but there was more to it. (He had previously been criticized for more serious matters – in which case mocking his mispronunciation might be a good example of zhi sang ma huai, pointing at the maple to scorn the ash (indirect criticism).

Lin Jianhua (Picture Credit: icpcnews icpcnews)

After more than two millennia, the chengyu remain an inexhaustible resource for writers and speakers, and essential in formal speech. Even a semi-literate laowai like me can benefit: I used the chengyu qi cheng zhuang he – introduce, develop, turn to another point of view, conclude – to structure this essay. Yet, as we all struggle with language, it’s difficult to tell if we have hua long dian jing, dotted the dragon’s eyeball (applied the perfect finishing touch), or hua she tian zhu, painted legs on a snake (gone too far). Through their extraordinary fecundity, the chengyu remind us that in understanding Chinese culture, shan wai you shan, beyond the mountain, another mountain (there is always another level to get to), and by their metaphorical slyness they remind us that yan wai you yi, the meaning lies outside the words.

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