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Choice Chengyu: Thanks for all the idioms

Phrases for remembering and repaying debts of gratitude

Choice Chengyu is a regular column, examining interesting, unique or newsworthy examples of chengyu—four-character idioms or proverbs, descended from historical and mythical events.

Tomorrow is Thank You Thursday, an “inspirational” occasion to embrace “the power of positivity”—meaning today’s chengyu lesson is all about remembering favors and paying them back.

感恩戴德  A heart overflowing with gratitude

An expression of overpowering gratitude:

He always bears overwhelming gratitude to those who help him.

Duì bāngzhù guo tā de rén, tā yīzhí gǎn’ēndàidé.


千恩万谢 A thousand gratitudes and ten thousand thanks

Some hide their gratitude in their heart, others express it in words—repeatedly:

He left with the life-saving medicine, saying a thousand thanks.

Tā názhe jiù mìng de yào, qiān’ēnwànxiè de líkāi.


感激涕零 Be moved to tears of gratitude

When your appreciation is just too strong, words may not be enough. Go on, have a cry.

没齿不忘 Remember until my teeth fall out

Some debts you’ll remember the rest of your life. Or at least until dentures become necessary:

I will remember your great kindness for the rest of my life.

Dà’ēn dàdé, mòchǐ bùwàng.


镂骨铭肌 Engraved in my bones and imprinted on my skin

This metaphor describes the depth of one’s gratitude; it’s at least skin deep.

一饭之恩 The favor of a meal

It’s not always enough to simply remember favors. One must also repay them: “A favor of drop of water should be repaid with a surging spring (滴水之恩,当涌泉相报).” This was the philopsophy of Han Xin, a military general to Liu Bang, eventual founder of the Han dynasty. As a youth, the future general lost his father and lived in destitution. One day, as Han was fishing, a woman washing clothes nearby took pity on the boy and provided him with a meal. She kept feeding him for weeks to come, in fact, and a grateful Han promised that, if one day he became rich, he would repay her.

Han kept his word—after obtaining the honorary title “King of Chu,” he tracked down his benefactor and gave her a thousand taels of gold. The story was recorded in Sima Qian’s Record of the Grand Historian, and gave birth to a chengyu meaning giving to return a favor in spades.

结草衔环 Knot the grass and champ on the ring

Another chengyu meaning to repay a favor originates from two stories. One, recorded in The Commentary of Zuo, relates to the Spring and Autumn official Wei Wuzi, who instructed his son Wei Ke to allow his favorite concubine to remarry if he died; later, Wei rather cruelly changed his mind and asked his concubine to be killed and buried with him. But Wei Ke made the humane decision to spare the poor concubine’s life and find her a new husband. Years later, Wei Ke was called up to fight. In the middle of a deadly battle, an old man suddenly appeared to defend Wei from enemy soldiers using a grass-woven rope. This fortuitous gent turned out to be the ex-concubine’s father, who had come to repay him—and was apparently a dab hand with the rope.

The other half of the saying comes from Xuqixieji, a collection of mystery and supernatural tales. In one, a 9-year-old boy named Yang Bao finds an injured bird about to be devoured by ants. The boy  nurses the bird back to health, and for years afterwards, the bird would fly away in the morning, and come back to sleep at Yang’s home.

One evening as Yang was reading, a boy in yellow appeared holding four jade rings, saying: “I am a messenger of the Queen Mother of the West. When I was traveling to Penglai, I was injured by an owl, but was fortunate to have been saved by you. These four rings will bless your descendants, who will all have high morals and become exalted officials.” And indeed, Yang’s son, grandson, and great-grandson all became famously moral officials (according to the book, at any rate).

Here’s an example of how to use this chengyu:

If you can save my child’s life, I will knot the grass and champ on the ring to repay you.

Rú guǒ nǐ néng jiùhuó wǒ de háizi, wǒ bì jiāng jié cǎo xián huán lái bàodá nǐ.


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author Sun Jiahui (孙佳慧)

Sun Jiahui is a freelance writer and former editor at The World of Chinese. She writes about Chinese language, society and culture, and is especially passionate about sharing stories of China's ancient past with a wider audience. She has been writing for TWOC for over six years, and pens the Choice Chengyu column.

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