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Choice Chengyu: Testing Terms

Phrases for success and failure in exams, past and present

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

The results for this year’s cutthroat college-entrance examinations (gaokao) are out, and if there is one sentence to describe the mood of students and their parents, it is “several families are happy,  others are sad (几家欢乐几家愁).”

But no matter the results, everyone will be discussing which university and major to choose, or where to hold a farewell banquet (or even to get plastic surgery as a graduation gift). Though the gaokao has a relatively recent history, having been redesigned in 1977, its ancient counterpart, the imperial examination, has a thousand-year history that gave birth to many chengyu. Here are several still frequently used today:

蟾宫折桂 Snapping laurels in the toad palace

The “toad palace” is a mythical palace on the moon (which, according to folklore, is the home of a three-legged toad) that symbolizes the imperial court. The “snapping laurels” part comes from the story of Jin scholar Xi Shen, who was asked to describe himself for the job of prime minister under Emperor Wu. Xi, answered: “I am like a branch in the laurels, a piece of jade on Mount Kun.”

Both laurel and jade became known as metaphors for great talent after the exam system began in the Tang dynast and so the phrase simply means “success in the imperial exam.”

金榜题名 Named to the Golden List

The names of those who passed the imperial exam were traditionally published on yellow paper for release to the public. Thus, this chengyu wishes someone good luck in the exam:

Hope your exam goes well, and you make it onto the Golden List.

Zhù nǐ kǎoshì shùnlì, jīnbǎng tímíng.


春风得意 Flushed with success in the spring bleeze

Many talented scholars took the exam multiple times, only to fail. When they finally passed, they understandably couldn’t hold back their excitement. When the Tang poet Meng Jiao passed at the age of 41, after repeated failures, he wrote a poem about riding a handsome horse through the streets of the capital, Chang’an, to celebrate:





The old shabby and awkward life isn’t worth mentioning;

I felt extremely happy today without depression.

In the spring wind the proud horse ran a two-beat pace,

I toured all the scenery of Chang’an in a day with grace.

The chengyu derived from the poem’s third line means to be “extremely proud of one’s success.”

Now he is riding on the crest of success.

Tā xiànzài zhèng shì chūnfēng déyì.


走马观花 Look at flowers while riding on horseback

Not to be interpreted literally, the second chengyu to derive from Meng’s poem has lost much of its original meaning, and now refers to “gaining a superficial understanding through cursory observation.” For example:

Since our bus only stopped for an hour, we could snatch but a fleeting glimpse of the landscape.

Qìchē zhǐ tíng yíge xiǎoshí, wǒmen zhǐnéng zǒumǎ guānhuā de kànkan fēngjǐng.


独占鳌头 Occupy the turtle head to oneself

Nothing to do with abusing turtles: In ancient times, successful examinees would meet the emperor at court, and were expected to kneel down on the footsteps. The topmost step, given to the highest-ranked candidate, or “状元 (zhuàngyuán),” was carved with the shape of a legendary turtle, hence those who “occupy the turtle head” are successful candidates or the champions of a league.

In this Go tournament, he eliminated all his rivals to come out first.

Zài zhè cì wéiqí bǐsài zhōng, tā yílù guòguān zhǎnjiàng, dúzhàn áotóu.


名落孙山 Fall behind Sun Shan

There are far more failures than successes on the imperial exam circuit—just less chengyu about them. According to the Song dynasty Records of Guoting, a man named Sun Shan took the exams with a friend from his hometown. When the results were released, Sun Shan found that he came in last on the list of successful candidates, and his friend had failed. Asked by the other man’s parents about how their son had fared, Sun diplomatically answered: “I was last on the list, and your son was behind me.” Thus, the phrase means to “fail an exam or competition.”

暴腮龙门 Exposing gills under the Dragon Gate

According to Chinese legend, if a carp jump over the Dragon Gate in the Yellow River, it will be transformed into a dragon. Of course, most fish end up under the gate, their gills open to the air. Therefore, to “jump over the Dragon Gate” is to succeed, and to “expose gills” under it means to fail.

Cover image from VCG


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.