We have all been lost for words at some point or another. But speaking more than one language has its perks: whenever we’re struggling to find the right words in our native tongue, we can always turn to another language for inspiration.
Some say that Chinese is one of the most difficult languages to learn. Chinese characters do sometimes seem like a ‘great wall’ that can be hard to get through - but if there’s something that this language does particularly well, it’s expressing complex ideas whilst using very few characters in the form of chengyu (成语).
But… what are chengyu exactly?
The English equivalent of chengyu is ‘idiom’ or ‘proverb’, the difference being that these are fixed structures typically comprised of four characters that convey very specific meanings. There are more than 5,000 chengyu, many of which are no longer used in day-to-day conversations. However, some are still widely known amongst Chinese speakers, to the extent that slipping one into a conversation will make you sound like a real language whiz!
Three well-known chengyu and their origins
画蛇添足 (Huà Shé Tiān Zú)
This chengyu literally translates to ‘drawing a snake and adding feet’. It is used when someone goes that extra mile to achieve something, but they end up overdoing it and wasting time.
The story goes that during the Warring States period (770 BC – 221 BC), a family was carrying out some rituals to worship their ancestors. They had a bottle of ceremonial wine left over, so they wanted to give it to their servants. However, there was only one bottle, so the servants came up with a scheme to decide who would get the gift: each of them would draw a snake on the ground and the first one to finish would drink it. One of them finished his very quickly, and since he had some extra time, thought it would be a good idea to add four feet to the snake. But then, another servant finished his drawing, took the bottle and started to drink the wine, saying, ‘We were meant to draw a snake! Where have you seen a snake with feet?’
In adding feet to his snake, the first servant had not only lost the prize, but completely ruined his drawing!
一日三秋 (Yī Rì Sān Qiū)
Have you ever missed someone so much that time seems to be dragging on? Then you can use Yī Rì Sān Qiū, which means ‘one day, three seasons’ – that is to say, one day apart feels like three seasons.
This chengyu originates from the poem Cai Ge in The Book of Songs (Shi Jing), included in the Airs of the States (Guo Feng). The Shi Jing is the earliest anthology of Chinese poetry and it belongs to the Five Classics of Confucianism, compiled by government officials between the Western Zhou period (1046 – 771 BCE) and the mid-Spring and Autumn period (approx. 771 – 476 BCE). This anthology was used by Confucius to teach his disciples and continues to be a fundamental piece of Chinese traditional literature to this very day.
In this poem, a woman expresses her longing in the absence of her lover:
There he is gathering the dolichos!
A day without seeing him,
Is like three months!
There he is gathering the oxtail-southern-wood!
A day without seeing him,
Is like three seasons!
There he is gathering the mugwort!
A day without seeing him,
Is like three years!
You can try using this one next time you want to tell someone how much you miss them!
自相矛盾 (Zì Xiāng Máo Dùn)
Moving on from the topic of love, here’s a commonly used chengyu to utilise when someone’s words are contradictory, or whenever you find yourself in a paradoxical situation. Zì Xiāng Máo Dùn literally means ‘mutually, shields and spears’, or ‘mutually conflicted’.
As registered by the philosopher Han Feizi in his essays dating from the Warring States period, there was in the Chu State a salesman who was trying to sell his spears and shields. He claimed that his shields could not be pierced by any spear, but he also claimed that his spears could pierce through any shield. Someone who had been listening from the crowd around him asked, ‘If you have the best shields yet you also have the best spears, then what would happen if you used your own spears to pierce your own shields?’ The salesman was rendered speechless, realising his statement was completely contradictory.
This story is so infamous that the last two characters of this chengyu (Máo Dùn – shield and spear) are used to express a ‘contradiction’ or being ‘conflicted’ in Chinese.
As you can see, chengyu have a wide range of meanings that bring us back to Chinese ancient times. They are a means to pass down Chinese traditions, myths, and fables, by beautifully bridging the gap between old and new generations.
And the list is endless! But let’s leave it here… before we end up Huà Shé Tiān Zú!
- Chinese Text Project. Retrieved from: https://ctext.org/book-of-poetry/cai-ge/ens
- Chengyu—Chinese Idiom. The Academy of Chinese Studies. Retrieved from: https://chiculture.org.hk/en/china-five-thousand-years/3839
- Sabiduría de la antigua China: Proverbios, cuentos y leyendas del chéng yǔ (Sabiduría perenne) (Spanish Edition). María Eugenia Manrique
- What is Zi Xiang Mao Dun? 自相矛盾 (4-character sayings). Learn Chinese Now
- Painting the Snake Adding Feet 畫蛇添足. Learn Chinese Now