Monday, November 16, 2009

Four Character Chinese Idioms

From the time of my Chinese wedding ceremony in early August until about a month ago, I fell off from my Supermemo study method. I just didn't have the time or inclination to keep up with it.

The whole basis of Supermemo is that one has to be disciplined and keep up with that stuff, so I needed to get back into it. Fortunately I felt re-motivated last month and am now just about caught up with my time-lapsed study method. I've even started several new piles of flashcards in the past few days.

I'm happy that it looks like I'll be able to keep up with my Chinese being in the States. Having Qian around is, obviously, really helpful.

A few weeks ago, I was talking with some people about how I enjoy learning new Chinese idioms. As I was talking about how I liked to learn the stories behind the idioms, someone asked me to name a few. Put on the spot, it was hard for me to just come up with one on command. I was able to think of one, but it wasn't that smooth. I decided then that as I go through my piles of Supermemo, I would like to write down the idioms I know so that I have a list of them.

I've compiled a partial list so far. I'm going to talk about several of them below. If anyone reading this thinks that my understanding of the idiom or how it's to be used is wrong, please let me know.

First, I'll list idioms that I can and do use naturally in conversation.

乱七八糟 - (luan4qi1ba1zao1) - This is probably my favorite Chinese idiom. It's really easy to say (4th tone and then 3 1st tones) and is fun to use. The definition I have for it says, "In a mess." I think "cluster****" is probably a pretty decent translation as well (although this idiom isn't at all vulgar). It can be used on its own expressing dissatisfaction or it can describe something that is in a complete mess.

塞翁失马 - (sai4weng1shi1ma3) - For some reason, this idiom has just stuck into my head. It basically means, "A bad can thing can turn out to be a good thing." Here's a little write-up on the phrase. I often say this to Qian when we're annoyed or things aren't really going our way.

美梦成真 - (mei3meng4cheng2zhen1) - This idiom is very literal. My translation of it, word by word, would be, "Beautiful dream comes true." I said this to Qian on our wedding day in China when I had to officially ask for her hand in marriage at her parents' apartment.

问心无愧 - (wen4xin1wu2kui4) - Here's another very literal one. My translation would be, "I've asked my heart and I don't feel guilty." The best man for my wedding was a Chinese co-worker of mine. One day he was giving me trouble saying that his life is so difficult because it takes him a half year to make what I do in a month. He was messing with me trying to make me feel guilty. I'd just learned this idiom and used it as he was talking with me. After I did, he let out a big laugh.

早睡早起 - (zao3shui4zao3qi3) - Literally, "Early to sleep, early to rise." Qian's mom has said this to me many times. This is a big one for Chinese people. They definitely stand by this phrase and that it is the key to good health. When I first went to China, I was a 夜猫子 (ye4mao1zi - night cat). After being there for a while, I am, in fact, much more of a morning person now. This probably goes hand-in-hand with my personal discovery of coffee about a year and a half ago.

- (san1ren2cheng2hu3) - This is a phrase that a lot of Chinese people don't know. The translation is something like, "If three people know something, it then becomes a tiger." My understanding of this is that once information gets to be known by three people, it becomes a beast.

五颜六色 - (wu3yan2liu4se4) - This literally means colorful. The phrase has an interesting structure, I think.

自作聪明 (zi4zuo4cong1ming), 自以为是 (zi4yi3wei2shi4) - These two basically mean the same thing: "Someone who thinks they are always right."

人生如寄 - (ren2sheng1ru2ji4) - "Life is short."

人定胜天 - (ren2ding4sheng1tian1) - This one is from Mao. It means something like, "With work, man can conquer nature."

马马虎虎 - (ma3ma3hu3hu3) - Literally, this is "horse, horse, tiger, tiger." It means something like "OK" or "not bad." This is one of the first words that all Chinese language learners are introduced to.

And then here's a list of idioms that I'm not particularly familiar or comfortable with. Although I've been introduced to them, I can't use these in daily conversation.

一成不变 - (yi1cheng2bu2bian4) - My definition for this is "doesn't change over a long period of time."

愚公移山 - (yu2gong1yi2shan1) - There is a story behind this idiom. I suppose the idea of this is that persistence pays off? I'm under the understanding that this was one of Mao's phrases.

永不分离 - (yong3bu4fen1li2) - Means "forever won't depart."

守株待兔 - (shou3zhu1dai1tu4) - My definition for this one is "wait for a windfall." There's also a story behind this one.

春暖花开 - (chun1nuan3hua1kai1) - "When spring comes, flowers bloom."

举棋不定 - (ju3qi2bu2ding4) - "Unable to make up one's mind."

急不可待 - (ji2bu4ke3dai1) - "Can't hardly wait."

I'm pretty sure there are a few more that I've looked at, but I haven't come across those flashcards yet in the past few weeks.

At my level, it's probably not the most useful thing to study idioms a lot. I really enjoy learning them though. The Chinese word idiom - 成语 (cheng2yu3) - literally means "become language." Reading stories about idioms and understanding how they work help get deeper into China, I think. They're also a lot of fun to use when the time is right.

There is a great Chinese idiom dictionary here. If you like this post, you'll be able to find a lot more idioms at that site.


hu shuo ba dao said...

re  三人成虎 (san ren cheng hu), this chengyu refers more to how once everyone says something is true it becomes so. i believe it comes from a story about how a man didn't believe that someone had seen a tiger in the village square (which, if i recall correctly, he hadn't) but then, after hearing the same story from three different people, becoming convinced. i guess the moral of the chengyu is "don't believe the hype."

Seán said...

I won't call 永不分離 (Yǒngbùfēnlí) a four character idiom because it alludes to nothing, and more importantly, it is not quite a fixed expression: if you’d like to say 永遠不分離, or 永遠不要分開, et cetera, it works too. It simply means ‘never part (with each other)’.

Mark said...

@hu shuo ba dao - Thanks for that clarification. Now that you mention it, you are right. My definition is off. I'm pretty sure that my teacher explained it to me the way you say it is.

@Sean - Thanks for the clarification on that. 永不分离 is still one I'm not comfortable with.

Ramesh said...

Hey thanks Mark. Its a good primer for ignorant laowais like me !

Honghao said...

The idiom "三人成虎" was invented 2000 years ago. Here is the story. A general was about to attack a foreign country. Before he left his own country, he asked the king, "If one guy tells you there is a tiger in the marketplace, will you believe it?" "No," the king answered. "What if there are two person saying so?" "Still not." "What if there are three persons saying so?" "Well, I guess I will believe it."

Then the general said, "It will take months for me to march to the country I are going to attack. However, there will definitely be more than three persons spreading rumors about me after I have left. So please wisely check any information you hear about me."

The idiom "三人成虎" means that a rumor can be taken if many people say so.

The original Chinese text (in ancient Chinese) can be found here:

Anonymous said...

My parents used to buy us these idiom books with the origin of the idiom, the explaination and then it was used in a sentence. I loved those books!

My brother and I always translate them into direct English for jokes. xi pi xiao lian, west peel laugh face. or tou ji mo gou, steal chicken touch dog.

lorraine said...

thanks for posting these idioms! i was looking everywhere for a collection of chinese idioms!!! thanks so much :)

lorraine said...

Thanks a lot for these idioms!
They are extremely useful and I've used them for my GCSE and IB mandarin exams!! Thanks a lot!!

Ole said...

as hu shuo ba dao already said...

"三人成虎 sānrénchénghǔ id. Repeated false reports will lead one astray."

Anonymous said...

If you read Mandarin, this is the full version.


Anonymous said...

愚公移山 is not originally from Mao.
It is from《列子·汤问》