Chengyu (成语 Chéngyǔ) are idiomatic phrases which usually consist of four characters. Because many chengyu
How Many Chengyu Are Necessary to Know?
For those reaching the advanced level, it is a good idea to acquire about 200 chengyu if you want to not have to get hung up on them while you read. Around this number will give you a solid grasp of the more commonly used idioms, as well as help you understand how meaning is compacted and synthesized into these phrases. After you have an understanding
Common Chengyu in Spoken Language
人山人海 (rénshānrénhǎi): This idiom literally means "people mountain, people sea," and can be used to describe the feeling of going onto the subway during rush hour in a major Chinese city like Beijing or Shanghai.
Example: 今天地铁里人山人海 (Today the subway was packed)
马马虎虎 (mǎmǎhǔhǔ): This idiom contains relatively simple vocabulary, literally meaning, "horse-horse, tiger-tiger." Most people will find it amusing if you use this idiom, which means "so-so" or "not so bad." It is common for foreign students to use
Example: 你唱歌好听吗？(Do you sing well?)
马马虎虎 (Just so-so)
自由自在 (zìyóu zìzài): This idiom literally means "unrestrained freedom," but usually means to be "free and easy." It features in a classic Taiwanese song called, "我相信 (I Believe)," which is a good song to learn for KTV outings.
Example: 我相信自由自在，我相信希望 (I believe I will live free and easy, I believe in my aspirations)
乱七八糟 (luànqībāzāo): This idiom is a historical reference, but it is more common than most chengyu in conversation. It literally means "chaos seven eight mess," and originates from two periods: one chaotic revolt in which seven princes rebelled against the Emperor of the Western Han dynasty, and one power struggle involving eight separate members of the Jin dynasty's royal family. It can be used to describe chaotic and disorderly
Example: 这家公司管理乱七八糟的 (This company's administration is a mess)
入乡随俗 (rùxiāngsuísú): This idiom literally means, "observe local customs," and is another idiom foreign students learn, possibly because it is easily translated as "when in Rome, do as the Romas do."
Example: 到一个地方，要入乡随俗 (When you travel somewhere, you should observe the local customs)
津津有味 (jīnjīnyǒuwèi): This idiom means to relish or particularly enjoy something, especially food. Here, 津 means to "salivate," and 有味 means to "have
Example: 津津有味地看电影 (To be very immersed in a movie)
Chengyu With Good Stories
自相矛盾 (zì xiāng máodùn):
This idiom literally means to "contradict oneself." The story behind this idiom is about a man who sold weapons. The man proudly advertised that his spears were so sharp they could pierce any shield, at the same time that he claimed his shields were so tough they could not be pierced by any spear. Possibly because of this story, the modern word for contractions is 矛盾(máodùn), a combination of
Example: 你说的话自相矛盾 (You are contradicting yourself)
画蛇添足 (huàshétiānzú): This idiom literally means "to add a foot when drawing a snake." The expression originates from the Warring States
Example: 你这是把时间浪费在画蛇添足上 (You wasted your time doing unnecessary things)
对牛弹琴 (duìniútánqín): This idiom can be literally translated as, "to play the qin (a traditional Chinese instrument) to a cow," and it comes from a story about a talented musician who also lived during the Warring States Period (a lot of Chinese philosophy and culture comes from this period). While traveling through the countryside, he felt inspired to play his music to a cow. After trying several different songs, the cow didn't seem to take any notice, and he went home disappointed. His story is now a popular idiom because of the bizarre image it conjures.
Example: 对不讲道理的人讲道理，对不懂得美的人讲风雅是对牛弹琴 (To explain logic to an illogical person, or to describe beauty to someone who doesn't appreciate elegance is to speak to the wrong audience)
塞翁失马 (sàiwēngshīmǎ): This idiom can be translated as "a blessing in disguise." The story behind this idiom is about an old man who raised horses in a border region. One day, his prize horse wanders away into the neighboring province. The friends of the old man were astonished to find that he was not bothered by the disappearance of his best horse. One day, the prize horse returned, bringing another horse back with it. The prize horses later made the old man rich.
(It was actually a blessing in disguise that I didn't get that job because I found out got this other job, which was much better)
君子一言, 驷马难追 (jūnzǐ yī yán, sìmǎ nán zhuī): Sometimes, chengyu
Example: 君子一言，驷马难追 (A gentleman's word is his bond)