My Chengyu Top Ten

I was talking to John B recently about his latest project: chengu.info. It involves chengyu (成语), those special (usually) four-character Chinese idioms. It got me to thinking about the study of chengyu and their relevance to Chinese study. I’m of the opinion that chengyu study is not crucial at the early stages, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to pick a few up early, either. I view chengyu as sort of the icing on the Chinese ability cake. Yeah, they’re nice and all, but you better have the cake to put the icing on!

Anyway, I decided to put together a list of what I consider the “top ten chengyu.” My top ten is determined by what I think a beginner/intermediate student is most likely to hear in conversation in China. I consider these ten the most useful, and the easiest to use.

Top Ten Chengyu

  1. 乱七八糟 - be in a mess. This one is so common that I hardly even think of it as a chengyu. It’s used all the time, particularly for physical states of disorder. If your room is messy, you can say it’s 乱七八糟. If the road is being repaired, it’s gonna be 乱七八糟. I once even heard a Chinese person say that someone “长得乱七八糟” (looks like a mess). Learn this chengyu right away.

  2. 入乡随俗 - when in Rome, do as the Romans do. This one is extremely useful because as a foreigner in China, it applies to so many aspects of your life. Plus, it’s really easy to use because it’s basically a sentence by itself. You can use it as an explanation for why you use chopsticks, or why you prefer to speak in Chinese, or why you ride a bike everywhere in China. You will almost always get an appreciative grin from this explanation.

  3. 胡说八道 - talk nonsense. This is another one you hear so often that it barely feels like a chengyu. It’s also really easy to use. When someone is trying to make some absolutely ridiculous point that you will not stand for, you can just blurt out, “胡说八道!” Or you can directly tell someone to cut the crap by telling them “别胡说八道!” Simple.

  4. 不可思议 - inconceivable. I’m not sure if this was the translation used for all those lines in The Princess Bride, but it very well could have been. The one is used quite often, and can also be used as an exclamation all by itself.

  5. 莫名其妙 - be baffled (usually used as a criticism). This one can be used in several ways. It can be used as a semi-independent sentence: “我不知道他在想什么。莫名其妙!” (I don’t know what he’s thinking. Crazy!). It can be used like an adjective: “莫名其妙的女人” (a baffling woman). It can be used as a complement, as in Wenlin’s example: “我被问得莫名其妙” (I was baffled by the question).

  6. 半途而废 - give up halfway. This second half of the list is decidedly less useful than the first half, but still well worth learning. This one is pretty straightforward. You use it like a verb: “我不想半途而废” (I don’t want to give up halfway). You could also use it to accuse someone: “你总是半途而废!” (you never finish what you start!).

  7. 一塌糊涂in a total mess. This one is very similar to 乱七八糟 (#1), but it’s less common and usually more abstract in nature. It also tends to emphasize that the mess is the result of some other action. So you see a lot of uses like: “弄得一塌糊涂” (make a total mess of it).

  8. 万事如意 - may all your wishes come true. Yeah, this may sound mighty cheesey to Westerner, but it’s said quite a bit in China — especially at Chinese New Year. It’s easy to use… it can be a sentence in itself, or you can add two characters to the front: “祝你万事如意!”

  9. 一路平安 - have a safe trip. This one should be used on trips of considerable distance (i.e. not for a 10 minute bus ride), but you’ll find it quite useful. This is not the only way to express this sentiment (there’s also 一路顺风, for example), but it’s the easiest for the beginner to learn. You can use it as a sentence in itself, or add two characters to the front: “祝你一路平安!”

  10. 能者多劳 - the capable should do more work. This one is not extremely common, but it’s so useful that I had to include it. You use this sentence to justify making someone do more/extra work, while flattering them at the same time. It’s great! You can also use it to comfort yourself when someone is pushing more work on you and you can’t get out of it.

I’d be interested to hear what chengyu readers think should be included in a top ten. Remember, my criteria are: (1) used in spoken conversation, (2) useful for foreigners, and (3) easy to use.

56 Comments to “My Chengyu Top Ten

  1. cyn says:

    i can’t read mandarin, and i don’t even have the program installed. =( my only guesses would be: 1. luan qi ba zao? 3. hu shuo ba dao 4. bu ke xiang xin? 9. yi lu shuen feng

    any chance you can post the ping yin for these phrases? pretty please? =)

    another favorite: yan da du shao

  2. Luo Dawei says:

    Another good one that is analgous to #7 is 糊里糊涂 which kind of means scatterbrain, or absent minded I believe. My wife often says this to me.

    Another one I hear often is 不可救药 roughly meaning incurable, or chronic。

  3. Ming says:

    好好学习,天天向上。

  4. Rob says:

    I like the 笑一笑,十年少。 Whenever your laughing at something and you don’t want to answer the “what’s so funny?” question, it’s a good redirect.

  5. John B says:

    Cyn, mouse over the Chinese for the pinyin in the Tooltip.

  6. Brad says:

    Some of my favorites: 衣冠禽兽: A base, despicable person (literally an animal wearing clothes) 随机应变: jack of all trades 以毒攻毒: hair of the dog 画蛇添足: gilding the lily

    Not sure if this is considered a chengyu, but I like it: 狗改不了吃屎 (one can’t change one’s own nature)

  7. Brad says:

    Also TTC had an entry about chengyu and how to use them to sound more fluent a few weeks back: http://www.talktalkchina.com/index.php/2005/11/04/idiom/

  8. Micah says:

    My favorite, I learned from a TV show the other day: 该死的狐狸精. Great for use on crazy women drivers/bicyclists.

  9. Brendan says:

    Hang on, you can use 狐狸精 like that? I thought it was just for “vixen,” “temptress,” etc. Suggested to a friend a while back that she change her Chinese name to 胡丽静, but fortunately she ran it past a native speaker before getting new name cards.

  10. Mark says:

    Facinating. I’ve never heard 入乡随俗, but I hear 入進隨俗 all the time. I’ve also never heard 胡说八道, though I’ve read it before.

  11. I am a complete iliterate in Chinese (and, as you can see here, in English as well), but I feel happy to see that I understand and use your fabourite one, luanqibazao.

    I also know THE ONE that I studied in my Chinese lessons two years ago:

    DIU SAN LA SI.

    (Pierde tres y se deja cuatro)

  12. cyn says:

    john, duh! thanks! =)

  13. John says:

    Hmmm, some of these suggestions are good, but all of them either (1) are not chengyu, or (2) don’t fit my criteria.

    TTC’s post was interesting, but the whole point of it was using certain phrases to impress Chinese people.

    乱七八糟 (and many of these others), on the other hand, isn’t going to impress anyone (besides the people who are impressed by 你好), but it’s still well worth the beginner’s time to memorize.

  14. Ke says:

    some idoms I think quite useful, 一见钟情,一往情深,一刀两断,

  15. Ke says:

    Again, 一见如故,一厢情愿, 一帆风顺,一拍两散,一面之词,一家之言

  16. Mark says:

    Uhh… well, there’s 馬馬虎虎 (so-so). That’s a pretty beginner-friendly chengyu. I used it a lot in my first year.

  17. John says:

    Ke,

    Thanks for the suggestions. How many of those do you think would be good for a beginner, though? Maybe 一见钟情, if he’s some kind of Romeo… :)

  18. John says:

    Mark,

    Is 马马虎虎 a chengyu?? I’m under the impression it’s not. Seems like just a reduplication of 马虎. I would have included it if I thought it were a chengyu. Definitely a useful word.

  19. Brendan says:

    I like 大同小异 – a nice respite from the overused 差不多 – and 傻里巴叽 (I’ve seen a few different transliterations for it), which I always associate mentally with Foghorn Leghorn saying “he’s a nice boah, but ’bout as shahp as a sack fulla wet mice.” 重色轻友 is good for using on friends with new girlfriends. 朝三暮四 is a personal favorite because it’s from one of my favorite anecdotes in 庄子.

  20. Mark says:

    Well, it’s in my “chengyu for kids” book” that I picked up in Taiwan. I honestly have no idea what is and isn’t real chengyu.

    How about 牛頭不對馬嘴?

  21. Brian says:

    I like 飲水思想a lot. 傾國傾城 and 沉魚落雁 are nice for flattery. Chinese really has nice ways to describe an overwhelmingly pretty lady.

    In Taiwanese they say 鴨仔聽雷, “A Duck hearing thunder” to say you don’t understand.

  22. schtickyrice says:

    I believe 饮水思源 is more accurate. 飲水思想 doesn’t make any sense, but then again I don’t know Taiwanese.

    I don’t know if it is a chengyu, but I like 藕断丝连. Very visual, and so Chinese.

  23. Brian says:

    Yeah you’re right about 飲水思源。。。打錯了。

  24. Micah says:

    Speaking of what’s a chengyu and what’s not, is there a precise definition out there? Do chengyu have to have a story behind them, or do the simple 喜极而泪-type also count? Do they have to have 4 characters, or does the 喜极而泪下 variant also qualify? Sounds like a job for Wikipedia…

    (Zh.wikipedia.org says “usually have four characters”, and En.wikipedia.org says “sometimes have a story behind them, other times just use compact classical grammar/usage”.)

  25. Gin says:

    For a definition, http://www.zdic.net/zd/zi/ZdicE6Zdic88Zdic90.htm has the following which I have translated roughly for you: “成语,chéngyǔ[idiom;set phrase]: 汉语词汇中特有的一种长期相沿习用的固定短语。来自于古代经典或著名著作历史故事和人们的口头,意思精辟,往往隐含于字面意义之中,不是其构成成分意义的简单相加,具有意义的整体性。它结构紧密,一般不能任意变动词序,抽换或增减其中的成分,具有结构的凝固性。其形式以四字格居多,也有少量三字格和多字格的。” A chengyu, unique to the Chinese language, is a fixed phrase formed from long and frequent usage. It may come from a classic or historical story or from a colloquial expression, have a precise definition, and often indicate a meaning hidden in the literal words (characters) composing it rather than a simple, verbatim composite of them, therefore it has integrity in its meaning. It is tightly constructed and (generally) cannot have its component words replaced or their order changed; therefore it has rigidity to its construct. It comes mostly in the form of a four-character phrase (to which we Chinese seem to have a preference), though a few three-charactered and more-charactered ones also exist.

    To me, there is a broader definition and a narrower definition, because not only can a chengyu come from classical/historical works but also from daily expressions if the expressions meet the frequent usage test and the fixed grouping test. In addition, a chengyu can, and often do, have hidden meaning in it or a story or article behind it, but it can also (instead or simultaneously) be incredibly apparent. This makes difficult the question of what’s a chengyu and what’s not. According to freeglossary.com, some say there are about 5,000 chengyu, others would claim there are more than 20,000.

    As to whether a phrase can classify as a chengyu, I’d have to add that the status of a four-character phrase would change and could vary (since usage makes an expression a chengyu). For instance, in the example discussed between John and Mark, 马马虎虎 when used to describe a careless or absent minded person, it means 马虎 and can be considered a mere “reduplication” of it as John puts it. However, when used as a fuzzy reply to “how are you” or “how is it” and meaning “so-so” or “not too bad” or equally “not too good,” it is fixed by convention and can not be shortened to 马虎…. and, for all I know, it may even have an origin.

    With a few specific exceptions like 衣冠禽兽, a four-character noun as a rule (cheat rule) does not make a chengyu. And, unrelated, today’s Chinese even sport a tendency to shorten these nouns to two characters.

  26. Luo Dawei says:

    Another one I use from time to time is 狼心狗肺。Literally – “wolf heart dog lungs”, meaing a person who is cool, cold or uncaring to others, only looking out for themselves no matter the affect on others.

  27. John says:

    Gin,

    Thanks for that long explanation! I think you gave an accurate answer, although when it comes down to individuals, it seems that the decision as to whether or not something is a chengyu is always based on a “feeling.”

  28. Gin says:

    John,

    Agreed. The “feeling” usually means, or should mean, applying the frequent usage test and the rigidity test.

  29. testa says:

    Most ChenYu are from historic stories. For example, both 傾國傾城 and 沉魚落雁 are stories about pretty women. 破釜沉舟 is about how a general won an impossible battle.

  30. Jeff says:

    This posting got me started in specifically studying Chengyu, for some reason I really enjoy it. Thought I would pass on a cool book that I got at some foreign language bookstore: “The Stories behind 100 Chinese Idioms.” He/Zhou, Sinolingua, Chinese and English with some pinyin, 22 RMB. OK as the title states, it’s idioms and not necessarily Chengyu, although maybe it’s 2/3rd Chengyu. I like it because it’s grouped along historical lines, and explains a little of the history behind each idiom. It’s interesting and makes for a good mnemonic device – I recommend having a look!

  31. michelle says:

    i like these chengyu. 王顾左右而言他 actually,沉鱼落雁 闭月羞花decribe the story of 4 ancient most beatutiful ladies . its very interesting.but too long,and so i talk it later. i am a chinese in UK. somebody who would like to commnicate culture and language might contact me.

  32. DJW says:

    another good one: 雁杳鱼沉 yan4yao3yu2chen2: literally the geese have gone away and the fish have sunk. It means someone has gone away and there has been no news of him. Another one I learned recently: 倾盆大雨 qing1pen2da4yu3. OK, this boring chengyu means to rain as if out of a tipped bowl, but its main interest is that it is the nearest equivalent to the English chengyu that fascinates Chinese, “raining cats and dogs”. Other recent ones:

    耳濡目染 er3ru2mu4ran3: to be influenced by one’s surroundings, used in a context of where a child in musical family became a musician himself

    一丝不挂 yi1si1bu2gua4: to be stark naked

    一窍不通 yi2qiao4bu4tong1: to be rubbish at something

  33. Maggie says:

    Can anyone give me a chengyu (pinyin needed too please!!) which would mean something along the lines of a friend being worth their weight in gold?

  34. Chris says:

    That top ten seems to be from your first year Chinese course. There are tons more that are way cooler. 不逞之徒 for instance. Just my two cents anyways =)

  35. John says:

    Chris,

    Again, note the criteria for the top ten:

    (1) used in spoken conversation, (2) useful for foreigners, and (3) easy to use

    It’s not about trying to impress Chinese speakers.

  36. oolung says:

    two very useful sayings for beginners:

    有志者事竟成 – when there’s a will, there’s a way (when you hit a snag)

    活到老,学到老 – one lives and learns (when you come to know of something baffling)

    每天一杯酒,活到九十九 – one glass of booze every day will make you live till you’re 99. Well, this one’s not only for beginners, but perfect for everyone who likes to go to parties “) :)

  37. Nicki says:

    I don’t know much about 成语 yet, but if you do a google image search on the term, you will find that there are fun visual word puzzles to solve for many of them. I certainly can’t solve them yet, but this might be a fun exercise for someone who has studied them and wants to review. I have put a couple of the images on my site:

  38. Hi there, Great post! Just wondering if you know of any Chengyu books in English/Chinese? I’m trying to build a better list of them, and am having problems finding good resources!

  39. clayroup says:

    i love chengyu’s

  40. Another extremely useful one that I’m surprised isn’t in John’s original list is 汗牛充栋,which means an immense number of books.

  41. Carl says:

    You missed out one of my favourites, 司空见惯, not to mention 自相矛盾 which I seem to bump into everywhere!

  42. Erica says:

    My teacher taught us this expression: “好梦成真 hao3 meng4 cheng2 zhen1“; literally means “good / dreams / become / true”. It’s not a chengyu but may stand for “may your dreams come true” :)

  43. brims says:

    What about 自相矛盾?I don’t know alot of chengyu, but that would seem to be a pretty common/useful one too. Plus the story is so good and easy to remember too…

  44. HunxueDrew says:

    I learned this one years ago from an old teacher and it always stuck even though it’s kinda long: 三个臭皮匠,赛过诸葛亮 (san1gechou4pi2jiang, sai4guo4zhu11ge3liang4), meaning “two heads are better than one.” Useful in almost any group setting, and the reference to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ Zhu Geliang always looks good for us laowais.

  45. Malcolm says:

    A personal favorite: 有朋自遠方來 , 不亦樂乎? (有朋自远方来,不亦乐乎?; yǒu péng zì yuǎn fāng lái, bú yì lè hu?) Is it not a joy to have friends visit from afar?

  46. I don’t think this is a true Chengyu, more of a Biblical phrase, but “爱人如己” means “to love others as oneself.” So, the golden rule is “要爱人如己.” It’s so much simpler in Chinese!

  47. Lewceein says:

    An idiom I wish I know when I first started studying: 吃一堑长一智 chi1yi1qian4 zhang3yi1zhi4 It means something like “learn from your mistakes”.

  48. Justin says:

    Hi everybody! Good luck with learning Chinese! One 成语 that I use pretty often is 井底之蛙 (jing di zhi wa). It literally means: “frog at the bottom of the well”. Quick story: the frog is in the bottom of a well, always has been, looks up and sees the sky through the top of the well and thinks that heaven is such a small place. A turtle then walks to the top of the well and remaks, “Such a small well, such an ignorant frog.”

    It just means “ignorant person”.

    Here’s an example: I was with some of the Chinese teachers at my school and they were saying that I should marry an American, or an English girl. I said, “are they really that great?” One said, “yes!” the other said, “I think that Chinese girls are great. The best.” I replied with, “Oh really? You feel that Chinese women are the best in the world? “Yes.” she said Chengyu time! I said,”哈!你井底之蛙!(You’re the frog in the well!)” and then the three of us had a good laugh.

    I think this can be verrrrrry useful for us foreigners because of the almost universal misconceptions of people from other countries (in my case Americans).

  49. Antoine says:

    Thanks John,

    that’s a really good post – even though I found it so late. Really inspiring :)

    One that I like to use is 枯鱼之肆, like many Chengyu it has a wise story behind it and is fun to use.

  50. Mark says:

    Here’s two I like that I didn’t see here:

    自知之明 (zi4 zhi1 zhi1 ming2): “to know yourself” or “self-knowledge.” So you would say something like “他真有自知之明” meaning “he really knows himself well.” When I hear this in my address, it tends to be the opposite…

    不知好歹 (bu4 zhi1 hao3 dai3): “to not know what’s good for you.”

    Thanks for the frog 成语 Justin, I can’t wait to unleash it on someone!

  51. Saya says:

    The first chengyu I learnt was 换句话说 - in other words. 我喜欢中国饭,艺术,语言。换句话说,我喜欢中国。Quite useful I guess :)

  52. nommoc says:

    Nearly 6 years after being written I only a few days ago found and read this post. Thanks for referencing me to it.

    Based on the shear number of responses above, I think it shows ChengYu’s are plenty interesting and really relative to us as learners.

    I’m not sure if it is a ChengYu but a 4 character combo I like is: 好事多磨。

    Likewise, I tried the links in your post above… the result and the reading of this post which is incredibly nearly 6 years old, led me to write this: http://www.nommoc.com/nommoc-china-life-here-today-gone-tomorrow/

    I think in addition to being a huge credit to your success in sticking around all these years, it is also worth mentioning that the post above is still serving its purpose down to today, that is helping people learn Chinese, as two of the ten ChengYu’s above were new to me: 一塌糊涂 – in a total mess (and) 能者多劳 – the capable should do more work.

    You’ve put a huge amount of time and effort into this site and it is a real resource to the Chinese learning community.

    ChengYu’s are one of the very interesting aspects of Chinese, even artistic it seems in some way.

    Sometimes ChengYu’s are the perfect means of expressing exactly what you want to say and verbally efficient at that.

    In the days when Twitter and 140 character limitations did NOT exist, and the need to make “every” character count, it looks like Chinese ChengYu’s were well ahead of their time.

    Terse and terrific, score one for Chinese ChengYu’s.

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