Tag: chengyu


Feb 2014

The Year of the Horse Chengyu

This is my second “Year of the Horse” Chinese New Year in China, and there’s one thing I’ve noticed: a certain chengyu (Chinese idiom, typically 4 characters long) gets thrown around like crazy in Chinese New Year’s greetings.

That chengyu is 马到成功.


There are a few interesting things about this chengyu, and some points worth exploring.

Is it worth knowing?

Like 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 of the Horse, that’s for sure.

But aside from that, it’s not a terribly uncommon chengyu. I’ve learned it without trying just by living through one Year of the Horse CNY, and you probably can too, if you live in China or if you’re tuned into Chinese media for the holiday. Tons of repetition of this chengyu.

What does it mean, really?

The nice thing about 马到成功 is that its components are so easy:

: horse (easy!)
: to arrive (easy!)
成功: to succeed (not bad, intermediate-level vocab)

It’s all high-frequency vocabulary, so that’s great. What does it really mean, though? “Horse arrives, success!” Something is missing. Is there some mystical luck-horse that runs around providing success to all it encounters? Not exactly.

If you look up 马到成功 in a dictionary, you get something like this:

> win instant success

Or, more literally:

> win success immediately upon arrival

OK, so if you take 马到 to mean “instant,” than isn’t it just the same as 马上, “immediately?”

But it’s not. At Chinese New Year, the chengyu is used in New Year’s wishes to others. If you were wishing people “马上成功” it sounds like they’ve already started something, and you want them to succeed immediately (like really soon!). Wishing them 马到成功 is wishing a speedy success to whatever endeavor someone undertakes. That makes a lot more sense.

OK, but does that explain why it’s 马到? Not really. Fortunately Baidu has the answer (in Chinese, of course). The chengyu actually refers to ancient warfare, in which cavalry played an important role. If your cavalry could get there on time right as the battle began, you’d frequently be assured a swift victory. (There’s a more complicated story behind the chengyu which Baidu relates, but it’s related to cavalry.)


This isn’t to say that Chinese people have images of cavalry slaughtering their enemies as they wish their friends 马到成功. In fact, most Chinese people probably aren’t aware of the origin of the saying. If you Baidu image search it, you see a whole bunch of images of horses frolicking around, not an enemy soldier in sight.

Using it

Even though the 马到成功 literally means “swift success,” you can also use it by itself to wish someone success in the New Year. You don’t need to add 祝你 in the front for “I wish you” (even though it’s not wrong to say that).

A common greeting that won’t stretch any intermediate learner’s abilities is:

> 新年快乐,马到成功! (Happy New Year, and swift successes!)

And with that, I wish everybody a 马到成功 in their Chinese studies!


Nov 2013

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.


Dec 2005

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.