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Chengyu: Chinese Idioms
Chengyu, in Chinese 成语 (chéng yǔ), are idioms, usually made up of four Chinese characters. An idiom is a group of words that have a meaning not obviously made through the individual words. Most languages have their own idioms. For example, in English when it rains heavily, we commonly say it’s raining “cats and dogs”. It is not literally raining animals, but it reflects the nature of the rain as falling heavily, such as if cats and dogs were to fall. There are lots of Chengyu in the Chinese language and they get used a lot. When you manage to master the Chengyu, both in written and spoken language, it means you have reached a very high level in the Chinese language.
Chengyu are mostly derived from ancient literature, including poetry, novels and short stories. A small number were constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries from Western source materials. Some Chengyu are direct quotes from four-character line poems. More commonly, however, Chengyu are created by paraphrasing or summarizing the original text, usually by selecting the most important characters from the passage and inserting any necessary classical grammatical particles.

There are tens of thousands of Chinese Chengyu but not all of them are actually useful and get used by native speakers a lot. But why learn Chinese Chengyu? Well, first and foremost, they’re interesting and they do help spice up your language a little bit. They also offer a little piece of Chinese wisdom, which is great for enhancing your cultural understanding of the language. Moreover, from time to time they help with your comprehension of classical Chinese by learning the characters in an idiomatic context. This can come in handy when you see the same character used again in a different context. The main thing, though, is to have fun with them and try to use them with your friends – it’s always good fun to see their reaction, and it can be an important learning experience too.

Below is an introduction to some useful Chinese Chengyu:

马马虎虎 (mǎ ma hū hū)
马马虎虎 is probably one of most well-known Chengyu because the literal translation is “horse horse, tiger tiger”. This is somewhat amusing, but the most common meaning is something like ‘so-so’ or ‘not bad’.
你唱歌好听吗?(nǐ chàng gē hǎo tīng ma?) = Are you a good singer?
马马虎虎。(mǎ ma hū hū) = Just so-so.
不可思议 (bù kě sī yì)
The meaning behind this Chengyu is that something is inconceivable or truly amazing. The characters literally translate to 不可 = „cannot“ and 思议 = „to comprehend“.
居然是他赢了,真是不可思议。 (jū rán shì tā yíng le, zhēn shì bù kě sī yì) = It is unbelievable that he won the game.
九牛一毛 (jiǔ niú yī máo)
The translation of this idiom is “nine cows, one hair” and means to be a small thing amongst a huge quantity, like 1 hair amongst 9 cows. A similar idiom in English might be “a drop in the ocean”.
一块钱对一个大款来说是九牛一毛。(yī kuài qián duì yī gè dà kuǎn lái shuō shì jiǔ niú yī máo) = One dollar to a millionaire is a drop in the ocean.
自相矛盾 (zì xiāng máo dùn)
The meaning behind this Chengyu is to contradict oneself. 自相 means “self” and 矛盾 means “contradictory” and is from a famous story about a man who bragged he could sell a spear (矛) that could pierce anything in the world and a shield (盾) that was impenetrable to any spear, an obvious paradox.
你说的话自相矛盾。(nǐ shuō de huà zì xiāng máo dùn) = You’re contradicting yourself.
半途而废 (bàn tú ér fèi)
The characters in this Chengyu translate to 半途 = half-way, 而 = yet and 废 = is given up/is wasted. The meaning is to give up halfway or to leave something unfinished. It’s a bit similar to the English idiom „to throw the towel in”.