Understanding Modern China Through Idioms

Understanding Modern China Through Idioms

Chinese is a contextual language, meaning speakers of Chinese will not usually voice their direct meaning, but rather talk around what they actually mean. One way they do this is through using idioms, known in Chinese as 成语 – chéngyǔ. Even though some idioms can claim ancient origins dating back to Confucius and Menicus, they can still be used to better understand the China of today. Learning Chinese idioms can really boost your Chinese language skills and will surely impress your Chinese friends. Here are some idioms which describe modern China:

按部就班 – Àn bù jiù bān – to follow a definitive method, or a prescribed procedure.

This idiom is sometimes used in a critical manner to describe inflexible bureaucracy. Anyone who has had to apply for a visa in China will be able to relate to this, traipsing from government office to government office to get those all-important red stamps.

唇亡齿寒 – Chún wáng chǐ hán – literally means that if the lips are gone, the teeth will feel cold.

Still confused? Well, it’s all about mutual dependency. The popularity of this idiom can help us to understand China’s view of its place in the world. Every country is intertwined and dependent on others. China holds a large amount of America’s debt, but China is dependent on exporting to America. African countries need Chinese investment, but China needs African resources, and so on. In this global world, nobody is an island.

当机立断 – Dāng jī lì duàn – to make a decision when an opportunity presents itself.

Chinese Chengyu - Learn Chinese with LTL Mandarin School

Chinese Chengyu – Learn Chinese with LTL Mandarin School

Since the opening up of the Chinese economy, the Chinese have been nothing if not opportunistic – whether opening factories, founding companies, or seeking out new investment opportunities. Take, for example, the carousel of small shops and restaurants on most Chinese streets – no sooner has one closed down, another opens in its place.

who remembers the plastic-sprouts-on-head craze that swept across China in 2015? Within days, it seemed that every street hawker in every city was selling the strange little things. But as with the sad demise of that fashion craze, not every opportunity pans out as hoped – you must constantly be on the search for the next one.

Related to the idiom above we also have 捷足先登 – Jié zú xiān dēng – literally, the swift footed will be the first to reach the top.

根深蒂固 – Gēn shēn dì gù – lit. deep-rooted and as firmly attached as fruit is to the stalk.

This refers to a deeply ingrained belief or habit. It is important to understand that despite China’s breakneck development, it is still a society which cherishes certain traditional values. There are still many firmly held beliefs which foreigners do not always understand. One example is the concept of “filial piety”, the respect and obedience one has for his or her parents. You can even see adults well into their 30’s and 40’s defer to their parents. There are several related idioms relating to filial piety, like for example 乌鸟私情 wū niǎo sī qíng – lit. the solicitude of the crow, the meaning is “to provide for your old parents”.

饮水思源 – Yǐn shuǐ sī yuán – lit. consider the source of the water you are drinking.

This means you should always bear in mind how the past has shaped your current situation. It is important to look to China’s history, and especially its more recent history, to understand how China has become what it is today. Anyone who has been to China will have noticed that Chinese people love to eat – food is definitely the main source of entertainment and conversation here – and many say that harks back to times when food was more scarce.

Chinese Chengyu with LTL Mandarin School

Chinese Chengyu with LTL Mandarin School

孤掌难鸣 – Gū zhǎng nán míng – lit. it is impossible to clap with one hand.

It is difficult to achieve anything single-handedly. This idiom illustrates the Chinese mentality that the group is more important than the individual. Many foreigners, especially from Western countries, come from countries where the individual comes first, and might have problems understanding the status and importance of the group in China.

蒸蒸日上 – Zhēng zhēng rì shàng -lit. Water evaporates into steam.

This idiom is often used to describe steady growth and rapid progress, often used when talking about the economy or careers. China has seen an amazing growth since the late 1970’s and until today.

Related to the above idiom we also have 日新月异 – Rì xīn yuè yì – lit. changes every day and every month. This idiom often crops up when talking about technological advances.

络绎不绝 – Luò yì bù jué – lit. as long as unreeled silk. And 川流不息 – Chuān liú bù xī – lit. to flow continuously.

Both of these idioms describe a continuous or massive flow of people or traffic. In recent years the population of many Chinese cities has grown exponentially, and the sheer number of people on the sidewalk and cars on the street is an amazing sight. If you dare to travel cross country during Chinese New Year, you will truly understand the meaning of these two idioms.

一针见血 – Yī zhēn jiàn xiě – lit. to see blood with one needle prick.

This idiom is used to describe people who are blunt and straight to the point. A related idiom is 单刀直入 – Dān dāo zhí rù – lit. thrust a big knife straight in there. Both rather unpleasant sounding idioms by all means. The fact getting straight to the point is associated with blood, violence and knives is quite telling as to how people communicate in China. Instead of being direct, one should always seek to maintain stability and harmony during interactions, and get your message across in subtle ways, especially if that message is a controversial one.

There you have it – idioms can not only enrich your language and make you sound more like a native, but they can also help us understand broader society. The idioms I have selected here are just a tiny fraction of all the成语 – chéngyǔ in the Chinese language today. You will never be able to learn all of them, but when you are learning Chinese, or when you are in China, remember to look out for them!

If you have some other favourite Chinese idioms, please let us know in the comments!

For more information take a look at Learning Chinese: 15 Idioms for Sounding Like a Native

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