Episode 8: Chengyu Game Show

Each episode is accompanied by a blog post which examines various elements mentioned in the video at a deeper level and draws connections to the world we live in today. The following blog post is by Kiril Bolotnikov, student at New York University Shanghai.

This episode utilizes the game show format in a manner similar to how Jesse approached Chinese slang—but this time, the topic is not casual slang but rather 成语 Chéng yǔ. 成语 are a bit complicated. They are also known as 四字成语 (Sì zì chéng yǔ , four-character expressions), but they are not always four characters. 成语 on its own is almost universally translated as “idiom,” but this is only part of the story. The term is actually inclusive of everything from proverbs to expressions, idioms, and allusions to ancient stories. Furthermore, they’re sometimes difficult to remember, and it proves difficult to know when to properly use a 成语.

They’re also sometimes difficult to translate because many are of ancient or literary origin, meaning that words are used in archaic or unusual ways by modern standards. The meaning of many 成语 cannot be understood simply from the individual characters; rather, one must understand the figurative meaning, as with English expressions such as “see the light” or “burn the midnight oil.”

The benefit to learning them comes when you fit one into conversation appropriately to the surprise and awe of native speakers. However, understanding 成语 is a window not just into fluency and the ability to speak idiomatically, but also a fascinating window into Chinese culture. Below are a number of 成语 collected from my classmates at NYU Shanghai as well as various sources on the Chinese- and English-language web.

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“Chinese people have a certain number of 成语 that they expect foreigners to be able to know, and that number is zero.”

乱七八糟 (Luàn qī bā zāo)

  • Literal translation: “disorderly-seven-eight-bad.” The last character can also be translated as “rotten,” and may hold something of that connotation. It refers to something very disorderly or messy. For example, a person can describe a bedroom to be 乱七八糟.

丢三落四 (Diū sān là sì)

  • Literal translation: “lose-three-leave behind-four.” If someone is described as diusanlasi, it means they are careless or thoughtless; if they’re not forgetting this, they’re leaving behind that.

谋事在人,成事在天 (Móu shì zài rén, chéngshì zài tiān)

  • Literal translation: “plan-matter-in-person, accomplish-matter-in-God.” This is often translated as “the planning lies with man, the outcome with Heaven,” or “man proposes, God disposes.” The phrase comes from Chinese Ming dynasty classic “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.”

生于忧患, 死于安乐 (Shēng yú yōu huàn, sǐ yú ān lè)

  • A saying of Warring States period philosopher Mengzi, also known as Mencius. Literally “life-in-sorrow-misfortune, death-in-peace-happiness.” This phrase can be translated as “thrive in calamity and perish in soft living,” or “life springs from sorrow and calamity, death comes from ease and pleasure.”

金蝉脱壳 (jīn chán tuō qiào)

  • Literal translation: “Golden-cicada-shed-shell.” This phrase is used to refer to crafty escape from a predicament, much as a cicada larva, once it is adult, slides right out of its shell, leaving the empty husk behind.

翻云覆雨 (fān yún fù yǔ)

  • Literal translation: “turn over-cloud-overturn-rain.” This is a reference to a poem by the Tang dynasty’s Du Fu, which depicts the image of a hand turning one way to produce clouds, and over again to produce rain. The image represents someone or something that is tricky and inconstant, or is constantly shifting ground.

丧心病狂 (sàng xīn bìng kuáng)

  • Literal translation: “Lose-mind-illness-mad.” The phrase is generally translated as frenzied or frantic, and can be used to describe a person or their actions.丧 in this case means 丧失 (sang shī), to lose. 心 usually means heart but can also mean mind. 狂 is usually translated as “mad,” but in the sense of “crazy,” not “angry.”

喜大普奔 (xǐ dà pǔ bēn)

喜大普奔 is an abbreviation for “喜闻乐见,大快人心,普天同庆,奔走相告,” which are four different 成语. So let’s go one by one:

喜闻乐见 (xǐ wén lè jiàn)

  • “Like to-hear-happy to-see.” It means to be delighted to hear and see something. It can also refer to a delightful spectacle, something that is a real treat to witness. 喜 means 喜欢 (xǐhuān), to like, and 乐 means 乐意 (lèyì), to be willing or to be content to do something.

大快人心 (dà kuài rén xīn)

  • Big-overjoyed-popular feeling.” 快 usually means “quick,” but it seems to be a poetic abbreviation of 痛快 (tòngkuài), which means overjoyed or delighted.

普天同庆 (pǔ tiān tóng qìng)

  • “Universal-heaven-together-celebrate.” 普 often means general or common, but in this case refers to universality, 普天 as a term then referring to “everyone under the heavens.”

奔走相告 (bēn zǒu xiāng gào)

  • “Rush about-mutually-inform.” 相 means 相互 (xiānghù), or mutual; 告 means 告诉 (gàosù), to tell.

These four phrases tell a kind of story: there is a delightful spectacle, everyone is overjoyed about it, all under heaven come together to celebrate, and everyone runs around telling everyone else. 喜大普奔 is actually not, strictly speaking, a 成语, because its origin is not ancient or literary but rather in the Internet. However, as an abbreviation for four other 成语, and because it is referred to as a 网络 (wǎngluò, Internet) 成语, it is a good example of how the meaning of 成语 may have shifted with the advent of the Internet.

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I hope that you found this post valuable and informative, and that you now have a deeper understanding both of the 成语 above and of the importance of 成语 in general. 成语 are an important part of the history of Chinese language, often stemming from ancient literature, and often phrased poetically, used as ubiquitously as idioms and expressions in English. As a result, you can also find many that are poetic and quite beautiful.

Speaking idiomatically in Chinese necessitates knowledge of such phrases, but as Jesse finds out, there are more than 10,000 of them, so it may be impossible to know them all. Furthermore, there seem to be new 成语 developed as well in the context of the Internet, like a kind of literary-referential slang.

Please share this article with anyone who you think would find it interesting: friends, family, teachers, students! More posts are forthcoming as we dive deeper into the immensity and many complexities of China.

Asia Society and the China Learning Initiatives appreciate your interest in learning more about China. If there are any topics you want to learn more about, feel free to email us at Chinese@asiasociety.org.

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