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Chengyu (traditional Chinese : 成語 ; simplified Chinese : 成语 ; pinyin :chéngyǔ; lit. '[already] made/formed words/speech') are a type of traditional Chinese idiomatic expression, most of which consist of four characters. Chengyu were widely used in Classical Chinese and are still common in vernacular Chinese writing and in the spoken language today. According to the most stringent definition, there are about 5,000 chéngyǔ in the Chinese language, though some dictionaries list over 20,000. Chéngyǔ are considered the collected wisdom of the Chinese culture, and contain the experiences, moral concepts, and admonishments from previous generations of Chinese. Nowadays, chéngyǔ still play an important role in Chinese conversations and education. Chinese idioms are one of four types of formulaic expressions (熟语/熟語, shúyǔ), which also include collocations (惯用语/慣用語 guànyòngyǔ), two-part allegorical sayings (歇后语/歇後語 xiēhòuyǔ), and proverbs (谚语/諺語 yànyǔ).
They are often referred to as Chinese idioms or four-character idioms; however, they are not the only idioms in Chinese.
Chéngyǔ are mostly derived from ancient literature, including the pre-Qin classics, poetry from all periods of Chinese history, and late imperial vernacular novels and short stories. A small number were constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries from Western source materials. Among the early classical literature, the lyrical imagery from the Shijing and the detailed and vivid stories recorded in the Zuozhuan and the Shiji serve as particularly rich source materials for chéngyǔ. Since the Shijing poems consist of four-character lines, some chéngyǔ are direct quotes from the Shijing. For example, 萬夀無疆 (wàn shòu wú jiāng, lit: "ten-thousand [year] lifespan without bound"), a traditional expression to wish someone a long life (often appearing on bowls and other tableware), quotes the poem "Tian Bao" (天保, poem #166) in the Lesser Court Hymns section of the Shijing. More commonly, however, chéngyǔ are created by succinctly paraphrasing or summarizing the original text, usually by selecting the most salient characters from the passage in question and inserting any necessary classical grammatical particles.
As such, chéngyǔ are fossilized expressions that use the vocabulary and follow the syntactic rules of Literary Chinese. Consequently, they convey information more compactly than normal vernacular speech or writing. They may contain subject and predicate and act as an independent clause (or even twin two-character independent clauses in parallel), or they may play the role of any part of speech in a sentence, acting syntactically as an adjective, adverb, verb, or noun phrase. In both speech and writing, they serve to succinctly convey a complex or multifaceted situation, scene, or concept, and used fittingly and elegantly, they also mark a speaker or writer's erudition.
The meaning of a chéngyǔ usually surpasses the sum of the meanings carried by the four characters, as chéngyǔ are generally meant to convey the message or moral of the myth, story or historical event from which they were derived. Thus, even after translation into modern words and syntax, chéngyǔ in isolation are often unintelligible without additional explanation. Since they often contain a classical allusion, known as a diǎngù ( 典故 ), elementary and secondary school students in greater China learn chéngyǔ as part of the classical curriculum in order to study the context from which the chéngyǔ was born.
Often the four characters reflect the moral behind the story rather than the story itself. For example, the phrase " 破釜沉舟 " ( pò fǔ chén zhōu , lit: "break the pots and sink the ships") is based on a historical account where the general Xiang Yu ordered his troops to destroy all cooking utensils and boats after crossing a river into the enemy's territory. He won the battle because of this "no-retreat" strategy. Thus, the idiom is used as a verb phrase with the meaning "to make an all-out effort to achieve success by the deliberate removal of recourse or backup." Similar phrases are known in the West, such as "Burning one's boats", "burning one's bridges", "Point of no return" or "Crossing the Rubicon".
Another example is " 瓜田李下 " ( guātián lǐxià , lit. "melon field, beneath the plums"). It is an idiom whose meaning relates to the appearance of misconduct or impropriety. It is derived from an excerpt of a Han era poem ( 樂府 詩《君子 行》, Yuèfǔ Shī "Jūnzǐ Xíng"). The poem includes the lines, "Don't adjust your shoes in a melon field and don't tidy your hat under the plum trees" ( 瓜田 不 納 履，李 下 不 整 冠 , gūatián bù nà lǚ, lǐ xià bù zhěng guān ), admonishing the reader to avoid situations where, however innocent, he might be suspected of doing wrong. The literal meaning of the idiom is impossible to understand without the background knowledge of the origin of the phrase.
Some idioms are so widely misunderstood that their literal meanings have overtaken their original ones. For example, "wind from an empty cave" (空穴來風, kōng xué lái fēng, viz. "hot air") is now currently mistakenly used to describe rumors without source when the actual meaning is the opposite. It used to describe rumors with actual, solid sources or reasons. Likewise, "bare-faced facing the emperor" (素面朝天, sù miàn cháo tiān, viz. "without makeup") is now misused to describe beauty that doesn't require make-up, e.g., when entering court. Its original meaning is "to be confident in one's true look".
However, not all chéngyǔ have stories to draw morals from. An example is 言而無信 (yán ér wú xìn, lit: "speaking, yet without trust"), referring to one who cannot be trusted despite what he says, an essentially deceitful person. It is generally acknowledged as a chéngyǔ as it comes from the Analects, a Chinese classic. The idiom is succinct in its original meaning and would likely be intelligible to anyone learned in formal written Chinese, though yán (言) is no longer commonly used as a verb.
There are a few chéngyǔ that are not four characters in length. An example is the seven-character 醉翁之意不在酒 (zuì wēng zhī yì bù zài jiǔ, lit: "The Old Drunkard's attention is not directed towards his wine"). This is a direct quote from Ouyang Xiu's essay An Account of Old Drunkard's Pavilion ( 醉翁亭記 , Zuiwengting Ji), in which the author ("Old Drunkard") expresses his true intention of enjoying the scenery of the mountains and rivers as he drinks. As an idiom, it expresses the situation where one does something with an ulterior though benign motive in mind.
Some chéngyǔ have English equivalents. For example, 言不由衷 (yán bù yóu zhōng, lit: "speak not from the bosom") and "to speak with one's tongue in one's cheek" share idiomatic meanings. The Chinese not having conducted maritime explorations of the North Atlantic during imperial times, the expression 冰山一角 (bīng shān yī jiǎo, lit: "one corner of an ice mountain") is a rare example of a chéngyǔ that emerged in the early 20th century after contact with the West as a translation of the expression "tip of the iceberg," thus sharing both their literal and idiomatic meanings. Another expression 火中取栗 (huǒ zhōng qǔ lì, lit: "extracting chestnuts from the fire") originates from a La Fontaine fable means "to be duped into taking risks for someone else," used in much the same way as the expression "cat's paw" in English is another example of an "international" chéngyǔ. Though they are recent in origin, they are constructed using the vocabulary and syntax of Literary Chinese and fits within the four-character scheme, making them chéngyǔ.
Chinese idioms can also serve as a guide through Chinese culture. Chéngyǔ teach about motifs that were previously common in Chinese literature and culture. For example, idioms with nature motifs – e.g., mountains (山), water (水), and the moon (月) –are numerous. Works considered masterpieces of Chinese literature –such as the Four Great Classical Novels – serve as the source for many idioms, which in turn condense and retell the story.
All Chinese people know idioms, though the total number known by any one individual will depend on their background. Idioms are such an important part of Chinese popular culture that there is a game called 成語接龍 (chéngyǔ jiēlóng, lit: "connect the chengyu") that involves someone calling out an idiom, with someone else then being supposed to think of another idiom to link up with the first one, so that the last character of the first idiom is the same as the first character of the second idiom, and so forth.
The following three examples show that the meaning of the idiom can be totally different by only changing one character.
|成語||Literal Meaning||Figurative Meaning||Etymology|
|一箭雙鵰||kill two eagles/vultures with one arrow||Kill two birds with one stone||See History of the Northern Dynasties|
|破釜沉舟||break the cauldrons and sink the boats||burn bridges, i.e. commit oneself irrevocably||See Battle of Julu|
|指鹿為馬||call a deer a horse||deliberately misrepresent||See Zhao Gao|
|樂不思蜀||so happy as to forget Shu||indulge in pleasures||See Liu Shan|
|朝三暮四||to say three in the morning and four in the evening||always changing (new meaning), a change without any substantive difference (original meaning)||See Zhuangzi|
|井底之蛙||a frog in the bottom of the well||a person with limited outlook||See Zhuangzi|
|磨杵成針||grind an iron bar down to a fine needle||to persevere in a difficult task||See Li Bai|
|守株待兔||guard a tree-stump to wait for rabbits||wait idly for a reward||See Han Feizi|
|亡羊補牢||to mend the pen after sheep are lost||close the stable door after the horse has bolted, i.e. try too late to prevent harm||See Warring States Records|
|三人成虎||Three men make a tiger||repeated rumor becomes a fact||See Warring States Records|
|完璧歸趙||return the jade to Zhao||to return something intact to its rightful owner||See Mr. He's jade|
|塞翁失馬||old man from the frontier lost his horse||a blessing in disguise||See Huainanzi|
|刻舟求劍||carve the boat in search of the sword||approach without considering the reality of a situation||See Lüshi Chunqiu|
|火中取栗||take chestnuts out of the fire||Someone acting in another's interest (cat's-paw)||Derived from The Monkey and the Cat|
|負荊請罪||carrying a bramble and ask for punishment||offer a humble apology||See Lian Po|
|紙上談兵||military tactics on paper||theoretical discussion useless in practice||See Zhao Kuo|
|畫蛇添足||to add feet when drawing a snake||to improve something unnecessarily||See Warring States Records|
|畫龍點睛||to add eyes when painting a dragon||doing something so well that it becomes powerful.||See Zhang Sengyou|
|對牛彈琴||playing the guqin to a cow||to communicate well, you need to understand your audience||See Mouzi Lihuolun|
|狼吞虎嚥||swallow like tiger and devour like wolf||eating food quickly and in a messy manner|
Yojijukugo is the similar format in Japanese. The term yojijukugo ( 四 字 熟語 , four character idiom) is autological. Many of these idioms were adopted from their Chinese counterparts and have the same or similar meaning as in Chinese. The term koji seigo ( 故事 成語 , historical idiom) refers to an idiom that comes from a specific text as the source. As such, the overwhelming majority of koji seigo comes from accounts of history written in classical Chinese. Although a great many of the Japanese four-character idioms are derived from the Chinese, many others are purely Japanese in origin. Some examples:
The Korean equivalent are Sajaseong-eo (사자성어). They have similar categorization to Japanese ones, such as 고사성어 (故事成語) for historical idioms.
Standard Chinese, in linguistics known as Standard Northern Mandarin, Standard Beijing Mandarin or simply Mandarin, is a dialect of Mandarin that emerged as the lingua franca among the speakers of various Mandarin and other varieties of Chinese. Standard Mandarin is designated as one of the major languages in the United Nations, mainland China, Singapore, and Taiwan.
An idiom is a phrase or expression that typically presents a figurative, non-literal meaning attached to the phrase; but some phrases become figurative idioms while retaining the literal meaning of the phrase. Categorized as formulaic language, an idiom's figurative meaning is different from the literal meaning. Idioms occur frequently in all languages; in English alone there are an estimated twenty-five thousand idiomatic expressions.
A Japanese proverb may take the form of:
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Yojijukugo is a Japanese lexeme consisting of four kanji. English translations of yojijukugo include "four-character compound", "four-character idiom", "four-character idiomatic phrase", and "four-character idiomatic compound". It is equivalent to the Chinese chengyu.
Many Chinese proverbs exist, some of which have entered English in forms that are of varying degrees of faithfulness. A notable example is "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step", from the Dao De Jing, ascribed to Laozi. They cover all aspects of life, and are widely used in everyday speech, in contrast to the decline of the use of proverbs in Western cultures. The majority are distinct from high literary forms such as xiehouyu and chengyu, and are common sayings of usually anonymous authorship, originating through "little tradition" rather than "great tradition".
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Xiehouyu is a kind of Chinese proverb consisting of two elements: the former segment presents a novel scenario while the latter provides the rationale thereof. One would often only state the first part, expecting the listener to know the second. Compare English "an apple a day " or "speak of the devil ".
San zhi xiao zhu is the Mandarin Chinese pronunciation of the Chinese language name for the popular folk-tale The Three Little Pigs. In late 2005, the Ministry of Education in Taiwan listed the phrase in an appendix to its online chengyu (idiom) dictionary; media reports on the listing surfaced in Taiwan and later Hong Kong in late January 2007, generating a controversy over the definition of chengyu in which academics and members of the public criticised the Ministry of Education.
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Classical Chinese grammar is the grammar of Classical Chinese, a term that first and foremost refers to the written language of the classical period of Chinese literature, from the end of the Spring and Autumn period to the end of the Han Dynasty. The term "Classical Chinese" is also often used for the higher language register used in writing during most of the following centuries ; however, this article focuses on the grammar used in the classical period.
Yu Min was an influential Chinese linguist, a 1940 graduate of the Fu Jen Catholic University, Chinese Department, a former professor of Yenching University, and professor of Beijing Normal University. His primary research areas were Chinese historical linguistics, Sino-Tibetan comparison, the study of Sanskrit in Chinese transcription. His collected writings were published posthumously in 1999.
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