Chinese Olympic track star Su Bingtian
Photo Credit: VCG

Faster, Higher, Stronger Chengyu

Learn some idioms in Chinese frequently used to comment on the Olympics

China’s news cycle has been a roller coaster lately: floods in Henan province have killed more than 300 people to date, Covid-19’s Delta variant has appeared in over 20 cities, and a rape scandal culminated in the arrest of Chinese Canadian megastar Kris Wu. Some of the few positive headlines have come from the Olympic Games in Tokyo, which gave the Chinese public a two-week routine of turning on the TV, cheering for another gold medal, and discussing the athletes with friends.

Perhaps in these TV sports commentaries and Olympics-related conversations, you have heard some poetic chengyu used to describe the athletes’ skills and their dramatic victories and defeats. Many of these stem from ancient poetry and military history, and were later applied to sports and other competitive contexts:

狭路相逢 xiálù-xiāngféng

Meet on a narrow path

A folk poem titled “On Meeting (《相逢行》)” from the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) goes: “Meeting on a narrow path, the road is so difficult that it’s not even suitable for a carriage to pass (相逢狭路间,道隘不容车).” The poem actually described two strangers happening to encounter one another on the road, and having a conversation. However, this line was later summarized into a chengyu meaning “enemies coming face to face,” implying that neither will show mercy to the other.

When it comes to sports, it is often used to describe two top players or teams meeting one another in a game. When you talk about the football matches of Tokyo 2021, you can say:

Brazil met Spain on the narrow path in the semifinal.

Zài bànjuésài zhōng, Bāxī yǔ Xībānyá xiálù-xiāngféng.


兵不血刃 Bīngbúxuèrèn

Edge of the sword not stained with blood

In any competition, there can only be two results: victory or defeat. Let’s face it: not everyone enjoys a close match. Many wish for an easy success for their home team, and this chengyu often describes such easy victories.

According to the Book of Jin, there was a field officer Guo Mo (郭默) in the Eastern Jin dynasty (317 – 420) who was very overbearing. But because he was in power, most court officials were very afraid of him. Once, Guo even killed a contemporary because of personal hatred, but nobody dared blame him. The chancellor promoted Guo as the chief of Jiangzhou prefecture (covering most of today’s Jiangxi province), in case Guo rose in rebellion. At this time, another famous military general Tao Kan (陶侃) stepped forward. He volunteered to lead his own troops against Guo, and soon seized Jiangzhou. Knowing Tao’s ability, Guo didn’t dare confront him, so he hid in the city and refused to fight. One of Guo’s subordinates didn’t believe he could defeat Tao, so he captured Guo and surrendered to Tao. Tao achieved victory without even fighting, so people said that his troops' swords were not even stained with blood. Later, it became a chengyu.

The Chinese table tennis team won this match 3-to-0, without even staining the edges of their swords.

Zhōngguó pīngpāngqiú duì bīngbúxuèrèn, yǐ sān bǐ líng de bǐfēn qīngsōng zhànshèng duìshǒu.


功败垂成 gōngbàichuíchéng

To fail on the verge of success

In a competition, nothing is more bitter than suffering defeat when victory is within reach. Here is a chengyu to describe such a miserable situation.

In the last years of the Eastern Jin dynasty, Fu Jian (苻坚), the king of Former Qin, a state led by the Di people that united the north of China, started a war against the Han-led Jin dynasty in the south. Xie Xuan (谢玄), a famous Jin general, led his troops to fight against Fu Jian at the Battle of Fei River, a decisive showdown considered one of the most influential battles in China’s ancient history. With the help of Zhu Xu (朱序), a Jin official who was captured by the Former Qin but remained loyal to Jin, Xie won this significant battle. Fu Jian fled. Xie then led his troops northward and took back many lost territories.

However, just when Xie was about to unite the entire country, the Jin emperor ordered Xie to return to the capital. Knowing the emperor must have heard some slanderous rumors against him, Xie repeatedly wrote to the court to explain. But the emperor didn’t change his mind. Heartbroken, Xie died of illness on his way back, aged 46. The Book of Jin created the term 功败垂成 to describe Xie’s experience of being so close to achieve success in uniting the empire, now a chengyu used to describe close defeats in a competition or a game:

Once having two match points, he finally failed on the verge of success, only getting second place.

Suīrán yídù céngjīng wò yǒu liǎng gè sàidiǎn, tā zuìzhōng háishì gōngbàichuíchéng, jǐn huòdé yàjūn.


一鸣惊人 yímíng-jīngrén

Amaze the world at first call

A little-known competitor who is not expected to win against their rivals is known in English as a “dark horse.” In Chinese, there is a chengyu for these exciting dark horse victories.

The Records of the Grand Historian (《史记》) records the following story: In the Warring States period (475 – 221 BCE), King Wei of the Qi state didn’t care about political affairs, thus putting the whole realm in danger. One day, official Chunyu Kun (淳于髡) said to him: “There is a big bird in the palace, which has neither flown nor sung for three years. Do you know why?” Understanding his intention, the king answered: “Once that bird starts to fly, it will soar into the clouds; once it begins to sing, its cry will astonish the whole world. (此鸟不飞则已,一飞冲天;不鸣则已,一鸣惊人)” After that, the king devoted himself to his duties, and lead the state to prosperity. The story gave rise to a chengyu, meaning to achieve astonishing results on the first attempt.

This 16-year-old player beat the world number-one in the final and won the championship, amazing the whole word at first call.

Zhè wèi nián jǐn shíliù suì de xiǎojiàng yìmíng-jīngrén, zài juésài zhōng zhànshèng shìjiè páimíng dìyī de duìshǒu, huòdé guànjūn.



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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