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.
July 13 is the birthday of one of the speediest Chinese of all time—Olympic hurdler Liu Xiang. A national hero after win the gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles at the 2004 Games, setting a world-record time of 12.91 seconds, Liu’s career ended ignobly as he withdrew from the 2008 Beijing Games due to injury, and suffered a humiliating fall at the 2012 London Games.
However, Liu is still remembered for his glorious speed, hence the topic of today’s chengyu:
风驰电掣 Swift as the wind and quick as lightning
Liu wasn’t just quick, fast, or swift—he was like lightning. This idiom was originally used to describe the ideal military attack, but is now more appropriate for someone like Usain Bolt:
The train passed me as quick as a flash.
Lièchē fēngchí diànchè bān cóng wǒ miànqián kāi guò.
健步如飞 Walk as if on wings
This chengyu is normally used to indicate surprise at somebody else’s speedy movements:
Even though he’s over seventy, he still walks as if on wings.
Tā niánguò qīxún, yīrán jiànbù rúfēi.
大步流星 With vigorous strides
This idom describes someone walking along quickly:
He strode across the lawn.
Tā dàbù liúxīng de chuānguò cǎodì.
狼吞虎咽 To swallow wolves and devour like tigers
It’s not only walking or running that can be described as fast—some people can devour food at a surprising pace, hence this chengyu:
After being hungry for so long, they wolfed down the food.
Tāmen è de tài jiǔ le, lángtūn hǔyàn de chīguāng le suǒyǒu shíwù.
风卷残云 A strong wind scatters wisps of clouds
This poetic-sounding phrase also describes the aftermath of a banquet that devoured in a matter of seconds:
The crowd cleaned the plate with their ravenous eating.
Zhòngrén rú fēngjuǎn cányún bǎ shíwù chī le ge gānjìng.
一目十行 Take in ten lines at one glance
Originating from The Book of Liang, a historical record of the Qi dynasty, this chengyu described Xiao Gang, the third son of Emperor Wu, who could read exceptionally quickly. Later, it was used to describe other talented scholars. Today, though, it can also indicate reading quickly but carelessly.
过目成诵 Able to recite after a cursory glance
Describing someone who can memorize something fast, this chengyu first appeared in The Book of Jin, and was sometimes written as “过目不忘 (Be able to not forget after reading it over).” In many literary works, this ability was described like a superpower. For example, in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Zhang Song, a scholar from the Shu State, recited warlord Cao Cao’s book on military strategy after a quick read-through, and said it was similar to every other military book he’d read before. Saddened, Cao burned his book.
一挥而就 Finish in one flourish of the pen
Here’s one for TWOC editors: If you want to praise people for writing something fast, go with this idiom.
This essay was dashed off by Su Shi in a flash.
Zhè piān wénzhāng shì Sū Shì yìhuīérjiù xiě chéng de.
Cover image from VCG