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Learning the right Chengyu the right way

Chengyu can be difficult to learn. Read some advice on tackling these idiomatic and fixed expressions!


Chengyu (成语, “Chinese idioms”) could be a hindrance to advancing your level of Chinese. The form and usage of these four character idioms are relatively fixed, and their meanings are often derived from historical or mystical Chinese stories. Some of them have English equivalents, e.g., 以牙还牙 (yǐ yá huán yá) translates to “an eye for an eye”. But many of them could be easily misunderstood or misused. How does 杯弓蛇影 (bēi gōng shé yǐng, reflection of a bowl in the cup and think it’s a snake) mean “paranoid”/”overly suspicious”? Why is 刻舟求剑 (kè zhōu qiú jiàn, nick the boat to seek the sword) used to describe silly solutions?

Ollie Linge from Hacking Chinese has conjured a detailed study guide for learning chengyu from both a student’s and a teacher’s perspective. She speaks from her own experience (a bit of trial and error), and also points out the difficulties she encountered as well as misconceptions she has discovered in the learning process:

Via Hacking Chinese, by OLLE LINGE

  1. Chengyu have a more limited use than you might think
  2. Always learn chengyu with a sentence
  3. You don’t actually need chengyu

“The first thing you should know about chengyu is that they typically express a very specific concept. This concept is usually much narrower than the English definitions you will see next to it in a dictionary. Of course, this isn’t true for all chengyu; some even have very close counterparts in English (see this article on World of Chinese), but it is true in most cases.

If you have fully grasped the story behind the chengyu and its meaning, you might still get it wrong, because modern usage isn’t necessarily the same as it once was or native speakers interpret the story differently from you. You also need to grasp how the chengyu is used in a sentence. Is it used as a verb? A phrase perhaps? Both? Or it might just be the case that native speakers don’t use that chengyu very much at all.”

To explain the relations between a word’s correct usage and the learner’s understanding of the word’s usage, Ollie has made the following graph to demonstrate how regular words and chengyu differ:

“The green circles represent correct usage and the white circles represent the learner’s understanding of that usage. If the circles overlap completely, the word or phrase has been mastered. As we can see, the process of learning words is mostly about adjusting the circles so that they match (of course, the size should vary too, but that would make the drawing very messy). For chengyu, though, the most significant difference between the circles is the size. Chengyu usually have a much more narrow usage than learners think.”

Learning Chengyu

Ollie’s second tip is that one should always learn chengyu with a sentence. While this is true, another way to grasp the context and background of a chengyu is to read the story behind it. For instance, 卧薪尝胆  (wò xīn cháng dǎn, sleep on straw and taste gall) is based on the historical story of the Yue King Gou Jian seeking revenge and reviving his kingdom against the King of Wu in the Spring Autumn period of ancient China. Familiarity with the back story will help the learner better understand the context and usage of the idiom.

“Always learn chengyu with a sentence

The biggest mistake students (including myself) make is that they treat chengyu as normal words, which isn’t a good approach. Instead, learn each chengyu in a specific context. I don’t mean that you should just add an example sentence, I mean that you should learn the example sentence and the chengyu as one unit. Of course, the sentence should be a typical sentence that shows the way the chengyu is typically used.

In fact, some chengyu are only used to describe one specific thing, so if you know that one sentence, you’ve covered most of the uses of that chengyu! In other words, you should start from a very small circle and then slowly expand that if you find other examples of how that chengyu is used, rather than drawing a big circles and then gradually shrinking it. This will of course mean that you will use chengyu less, but you will at the same time avoid using them incorrectly most of the time.”

Her last suggestion rings true for many Chinese language learners. While chengyu could be useful, and does indicate your knowledge and mastery of Chinese, misusage not only makes you sound like a beginner, but also make you look like an arrogant showoff. Chinese people generally avoid using chengyu when conversing with a foreigners, but if one does come up during the conversation, you could always ask what it means and note it down. Ollie advises chengyu learners to start with the most common ones (after all, there are some really thick chengyu dictionaries out there, and even native Chinese speakers don’t use most of the entries):

“You don’t actually need chengyu; they aren’t magic keys to anything

Of course, if your Chinese is so good that it starts approaching an educated native speaker, you really have to start using chengyu correctly to really show your mastery of the language. You also can’t escape some common chengyus, both written and spoken. That’s not what I’m talking about here, I’m talking about the thousands of chengyu that pop up in books, articles and so on. Understand them, study them if you like, but do so because you’re interested and because you like it, not in a vain attempt to show off, because you’re most likely to shoot yourself in the foot.

If you don’t love chengyu, I suggest you learn the most common ones, especially those that can be used in a large variety of situations. The general rule is that if you hear a chengyu three times in different situations, it’s probably worth learning. An alternative is to check this article by Carl Fordham, who has gathered 20 chengyu that are actually useful. Never learn chengyu from huge lists you find on the internet.”

What are your experiences learning and dealing with chengyu? If you have some insights or stories you would like to share, please feel free to leave them in the comments below.

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