Chinese idioms and why they are important
There exist in both spoken and written Chinese a great number of idioms also called chengyu, literally “set language” or “set expressions”, which are translated in English as “idiom”.
These may be general in nature or they may allude to famous events or stories from Chinese history, or they may be direct quotations from famous works of Chinese literature. The great majority of Chinese idioms is composed of four characters, which usually –though not always- can be parsed in groups of two.
Chinese idioms are usually composed in Classical Chinese and thus typically have a different grammatical structure from that of Modern Chinese. In their speech and writing, Chinese people make frequent use of idioms, since these often sum up succinctly a meaning which it would otherwise take many words to express.
Contextually appropriate use of idioms tends to impress hearers as to the educational level and eloquence of the speaker. Since idioms are frequently used in formal speech and higher-level written materials, such as newspaper editorials and commentaries, they serve as a useful medium for helping learners move up on the proficiency ladder.
Familiarity with idioms can also be helpful for the non-native in gaining credibility in Chinese society. Indeed, almost nothing impresses a Chinese person more than an aptly used idiom coming from the mouth of a foreigner.
There is a great number of idioms in Chinese, with certain dictionaries of idioms including well over 20,000 entries. All Chinese people know idioms, even though the total number known by any one individual will depend on her or his education, linguistic talent, general intelligence, etc…
Idioms are such an important part of Chinese popular culture that there even exists a game called chengyu jielong 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.
According to the Chinese search engine Baidu, the longest idiom chain ever created was all of 1,788 idioms long!
For the learner of Chinese as a second/foreign language, idioms are not so easy to understand, since the functional meaning of idioms is often different from the surface meaning and may, to quote an English idiom, be “greater than the sum of its parts”.
This is because Chinese idioms frequently involve literary allusions, extended meanings, and metaphors.
For example, consider the following idiom:
雪中送炭 xuě zhōng sòng tàn
This could be translated literally as “in the snow to deliver charcoal”; however, the actual meaning usually has nothing at all to do with “snow” or “charcoal”, but rather involves the rendering of aid to someone at time of need.Similarly, it is not so easy to use idioms. For example, consider the idiom:
衣食住行 yī shí zhù xíng
The literal meaning of this idiom is “food, clothing, shelter, and transportation”, that is, “the basic necessities of life”. This would seem to be not that difficult to understand. However, in speech or in written compositions, students will frequently produce a sentence such as: 每个人都有衣食住行
with the intended meaning:”Everyone possesses the basic necessities of life”; yet this idiom cannot be used in such a way.
The basic problem here is that students understand only the general meaning of the idiom but are not clear about how to use it appropriately in their own speech or writing. And precisely because idioms are difficult to use appropriately, students tend to avoid them in their Chinese.
Idioms have a long history in Chinese, with some having existed for well over 2,000 years. Indeed, the grammatical structure of most Chinese idioms is that of Classical Chinese.
There are three common origins of idioms: ancient fables and historical tales; Buddhist and Confucian classics as well as other works of ancient Chinese literature; and habitual collocations of terms that gradually came to be stable and used in a certain way, even though their exact origin is not known today. To use a Chinese idiom, we could say there are in the Chinese language as many idioms “as there are hairs on an ox”.
多如牛毛 duō rú niú máo
So, how many idioms should a foreign learner of Chinese learn?