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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!).
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).
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！”
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！”
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.