The Chengyu Bias

Chengyu (成语) are the (usually) four-character idioms that any intermediate learner of Chinese knows about. By the time you get to the intermediate level of Chinese, you’ve heard lots about how many of them there are, and how richly imbued with Chinese culture they are, and how they’re wonderful little stories packed into four short characters. Oh, and there are literally thousands of them, so you better start memorizing.

But wait… why?? Why do intermediate learners of Chinese need to start memorizing chengyu so early when, as far as they can tell, they’re relatively rare in daily life? Is it more important to learn a list of four-character idioms than to get better at ordering food in Chinese? Or to talk about basic economics? Or to discuss modern social issues? Or even to finally get a decent grasp of the ever-elusive particle ? Those tasks all involve the use of relatively high frequency vocabulary and require no chengyu. So why the chengyu urgency?

Jason's Chinese Project Presentation

The Bias

Many students of Chinese are told by their Chinese teachers that chengyu are important. They take this advice to heart and dutifully start learning. They may enjoy the stories behind them, or they may not, but these students inevitably realize that they hardly ever come across these chengyu they’re learning in actual conversation or even readings.

The fact is that teaching Chinese to foreigners on any large scale is a relatively new thing, and as such, some kinks are still being worked out. Early efforts at teaching foreigners involved a lot of transference of educational methods used on Chinese children. Memorization of Tang dynasty poems, writing out each new character hundreds of times, and memorizing lists of chengyu long before they’re actually useful are time-honored traditions when it comes to teaching Chinese kids their native language. That doesn’t mean these methods are effective for non-Chinese adults learning Chinese, especially when basic communication is the goal.

The Four-Character Fetish

Despite their questionable usefulness, chengyu get a lot of attention. From an English-speaking perspective, so much fuss over chengyu seems a little strange. Maybe it would help to draw some analogies to English.

Some chengyu are relatively straightforward to understand, and the meaning can be guessed. These are sort of like many English idioms. Think “raining cats and dogs” or “a dime a dozen” or “barking up the wrong tree.” They’re interesting to language nerds, and kind of make sense. They can be fun, but they’re no substitute for basic vocabulary. Fortunately, they’re also pretty easy to understand once your Chinese is at a low advanced level.

Other chengyu are more cryptic because they involve words and word order from classical Chinese, and/or refer to specific stories from ancient China. These are the ones you typically cannot guess the meaning of, and if you don’t know them, you’re absolutely clueless as to what they mean. These are the ones that truly separate the men from the boys in terms of Chinese literacy, and educated Chinese often stump each other with obscure chengyu of this type. It would be more appropriate to compare these with Latin sayings common in highbrow English, like “carpe diem” or “et tu, Brute” or “quid pro quo.”

In short, this second type especially, when overused, comes across as a bit pretentious. This connection of chengyu to an elite education is no small part of the appeal, either to native speakers or to learners of Chinese as a foreign language.

No Special Treatment

In Chinese, chengyu are generally considered individual words. This may seem a little strange, and the definition of a Chinese “word” is a bit amorphous to begin with, but bear with me here. Chengyu sometimes serve as mini sentences, sometimes work as verbs or adjectives, but essentially function like four-character words. Sure, they often have a rich history and pack quite a semantic punch in a small package, but they’re still essentially words.

Since they’re words, it’s easily to apply standard linguistic analysis to them. Corpus analysis can tell us how common any given chengyu is, what types of texts it’s likely to appear in, whether it’s a high-frequency word, etc. And the thing is, chengyu are not high-frequency words, especially when taken individually. Some are definitely higher frequency than others, but compared with ordinary words, they’re essentially all low-frequency.

Now obviously I’m not trying to say that low-frequency words are worthless or not worth learning. But why should low-frequency words be prioritized over medium-frequency words simply because they’ve got the chengyu label? When you start focusing on chengyu as an intermediate learner, that’s exactly what you’re doing. As an intermediate learner, there’s still a ton of good useful medium-frequency words to get familiar with. Why should chengyu get preferential treatment? When you need the word for “ambulance” or “stock market” or “allergy,” having memorized a few dozen chengyu (that you’ve probably never used) are little consolation.

So learners, don’t avoid chengyu, but don’t learn chengyu just because they’re chengyu. Don’t give chengyu special treatment when you could be improving your ability to communicate in Chinese. Just think of chengyu as the low frequency words they are, and when you start to encounter them naturally, learn them. When the time comes, you’ll recognize their usefulness in context and will see them more than once. As an intermediate learner, you’ll occasionally come across high-frequency chengyu (I have my own chengyu top ten), but certainly not by the boatload.

The Caveat

If you really love chengyu, then I’m sure my advice won’t shake your passion. And learning a few can certainly be interesting.

Thanks to @saporedicina for motivating me to finally put this post up. See also Olle of Hacking Chinese’s post (we definitely see eye to eye): Learning the right chengyu the right way.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Well said, learn chengyu’s like voacb words, naturally as you encounter them and based on freq.

    Question, should a list of the most commonly used chengyu’s be compiled?

  2. Chengyu, like the Chinese language(s) in general, are a beautiful nightmare.

  3. I personally enjoy learning Chengyu, but that is probably also partly because the Four Character Fetish you talked about. When someone knows Chengyu, people are impressed and you have a better view of yourself and your progress. This in turn helps motivation a lot, which makes you continue want to study more Chinese. So as you said, for people who have a passion for Chengyu, this article won’t budge them (/me), but I agree with you that there is so much emphasis on Chengyu that foreigners become measured on their knowledge of Chengyu rather than being able to speak fluently.

    • “When someone knows Chengyu, people are impressed and you have a better view of yourself and your progress. “

      Really? Wow. Must be nice.

  4. Good post, John. Waay back when I interviewed the authors of 500 Common Chinese Idioms on Sinoglot. That’s a solid book, with sample sentences and so forth.

  5. Smart. Thank you so much for posting. People who’ve never been to China or just got to China has this Hollywood myth about the ‘Traditional Chinese Society’ where wise old men shuffle around uttering deep koans to each other.

    Real “Modern” Chinese society is mostly about drinking smoking, cars, iPhones, dating, sex and spitting. Chengyu’s never really come up. It’s like making a Biblical or Shakespearean reference in casual conversation for whiteys. Cute and clever for about 5 seconds of snickering, but by no means word thousands of hours of study.

  6. In my experience of watching Chinese television, chengyu are consistently used on TV dramas and comedies. My reasoning is that screenwriters want their actors to sound smart and funny. However, in watching variety shows and dating shows, chengyus are not so consistently used. This may be due to the shows not being so thoroughly scripted. But out of interest, recently on 非诚勿扰 a young American with impressive Chinese made an appearance. He used so many chengyus (and correctly, to my knowledge) that it seemed as if he had eaten a chengyu dictionary for breakfast. I don’t think he was showing off. He was trying to assure everybody, in particular the female contestants, that he had a handle on Chinese and his mastery of chengyu should encourage everybody to speak freely. On another dating show, a Chinese national made a reference to popular culture, a TV show called 小爸爸. He said he his life was exactly like the lead in this TV show, who is played by 文章。 I watched a couple of episodes of the show so I was familiar with the reference. For me, this reference had greater resonance than a chengyu. When I heard the reference, I immediately understood this young man’s life and could identify with him.

  7. Why do you think Chinese educators emphasize literacy and the literate register so strongly, even to beginners? Don’t they realize that their students, after four or more years, can’t even comfortably narrate very basic stories?

    • It’s the issue of transference. Chinese educators, by default, will teach foreigners similarly to how they teacher their own children. The problem, of course, is that children become fluent speakers without help, leaving educators free to focus on literacy (and other subjects). This is not a good way to approach second language acquisition!

  8. I feel similarly about teaching English idioms to my students. We taught a book that focused on idioms. Later, I realized it was also about idiomatic speech. In teaching the idioms, I really thought I did not say many of them in daily life, but after teaching the class I realized I knew what most of them meant, that I did use them, and I began to notice others using them. For my students I would say about 50% were useful expressions, but others would not really be used that much. I felt it would have been more productive to give them vocabulary that they would need in daily life.
    In Chinese class, I felt chengyu was about the most pointless thing to study of all. I pretty much agree with your comments, and also that most of the chengyu I remember is from situations where it came up in context and I thought it was a really accurate expression after someone explained it to me.

    • It might be fun/interesting to grab a script for a 30 mins American Sitcom, like How I Met Your Mother, Modern Family or Rules of Engagement, and just go through with a highlighter, how many ‘idiomatic’ or ‘slang’ expressions you find.

      Whether the number is 20% or 3%, use this percentage to teach classes accordingly. I realize that it’s all about TOEIC, etc, but if the Chengyu (English or Chinese) aren’t being used, let’s not waste any more time on them than we have to.

  9. […] many learners, you may not want to junk up your brain space with too many useless chengyu. So is this one worth it? Well, it sure gets liberally tossed around at the beginning of the Year […]

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