Chinese Idioms – Chinese Chengyu

Chengyu – Four Characters, One Deep Meaning

Although there is no exact number of Chinese Chengyu, any figure between 5,000 and 20,000 gets banded around when discussing Chinese Idioms. A quite staggering number of four character pearls of wisdom, and although we’ll never learn them all you have to start somewhere right?

For those of you less familiar, a Chengyu is a Chinese Idiom. A saying that is generally four characters long and has some form of deep meaning. Most Chengyu have a long history and come from ancient literature and the context of each Chengyu must be learned alongside the pinyin and the characters as they will otherwise hold zero relevance.

An example of a Chinese Chengyu or Idiom - Wǔ Guāng Shí Sè

An example of a Chinese Chengyu or Idiom – Wǔ Guāng Shí Sè

Let’s get going and introduce you to a few new Chengyu including their meanings. If you already know them, why not comment below and share some of your favourites?

九牛一毛 (jiǔ niú yī máo)

The literal meaning here is quite simple, 9 cows and 1 strand of hair. This Chengyu can be likened to the popular western equivalent, a drop in the bucket. Both sayings hold virtually identical meanings, but rather than using a bucket, the Chinese use a Cow to make their point!

九 (jiǔ): nine

牛 (niú): cow

一 (yī): one

毛 (máo): hair

You could use a hotly contested job as an example. Hundreds of people apply but Mr Average Joe was just one strand of Cow Hair in amongst 9 cows. His chances of landing that job are slim, or even non existent.

Chinese Chengyu

见多识广(jiàn duō shí guǎng)

This is a fascinating Chengyu that refers to someone with great experience. As you’ll see below with the character breakdown the four characters make a literal translation to “see many know broad”. Although this makes no direct sense, we can piece the puzzle together and see this Chengyu refers to someone who has seen it all and has broad knowledge. In many cases the older generation, and how they should be listened to as they’ve most likely been through what you are, all before.

见 (jiàn): to see

多 (duō): many

识 (shí): to know / knowledge

广 (guǎng): broad

万众瞩目– wàn zhòng zhǔ mù

Ever had the eyes of 10,000 expectant folk upon yourself? Well, unless you are a famed name probably not but on the flip side we’ve all been one of those 10,000 as we gaze lovingly at our favourite celebrities, sports stars and actors/actresses.

This Chengyu is all about capturing the attention of many and the direct translation very much paints this picture which is “ten thousand crowd gaze eyes”. Obviously the crowd doesn’t specifically have to be 10,000 people but you get the point. If he or she woos the crowd with their mesmeric dance moves, powerful singing voice or first rate sports skills… they will be capturing the eyes of many, or wàn zhòng zhǔ mù.

万 (wàn): 10,000

众 (zhòng): crowd

瞩 (zhǔ): gaze

目 (mù): eyes

Chinese Idioms

Changing a Character

If you’ve studied Chinese as a foreigner you’ll know the fine lines between right and wrong. Whether it’s spoken or written, one wrong tone or missed stroke can change the whole meaning of what you hope to say. Although this can lead to embarrassing moments it’s all part of the fun in learning Chinese.

On the topic of near misses we explore below how the context of a Chengyu can change greatly by just changing a single character. This will give you an idea how different things can be in Chinese by changing the most minor of details. It may appear daunting but it isn’t, just remember the English language can be equally harsh, as we’ll show here:

  • To, Two, Too
  • There, Their, They’re
  • Through, Throw, Thorough

The above, and so many more provide daily challenges for non native speakers. Chinese also have the added issue of having the same word for him and her, which is why many struggle to differentiate between the two when speaking English.

Anyway let’s move onto a Chinese Chengyu and change a single character after to demonstrate what we mean.

一日千秋 (Yī rì qiān qiū) – “1 day, 1,000 autumns.”

Meaning: sudden or rapid changes; in a day, 1,000 autumns or years passed

一日千里 (Yī rì qiān lǐ) – “1 day, 1,000 miles.”

Meaning: rapid progression; travelled 1,000 miles in 1 day

一日三秋 (Yī rì sān qiū) – “1 day, 3 autumns.”

Meaning: to miss someone; a day feels like 3 autumns or 3 years

One character can make all the difference to the meaning of each Chengyu, but in general day to day chat as well so be careful when speaking and make sure to get the tones as clear as possible.

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