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10 Useful Chinese Chengyu and Idioms for Beginners

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What are Chinese Chengyu?

Chengyu 成语 (chéng yǔ) are idioms, usually made up of four Chinese characters. An idiom is a group of words that have a meaning not obviously made through the individual words. Most languages have their own idioms.

For example, in English when it rains heavily we commonly say it’s raining ‘cats and dogs’. It is not literally raining animals, but it reflects the nature of the rain as falling heavily, such as if cats and dogs were to fall.

In Spanish “Abrir la caja de los truenos” is the equivalent of to ‘open a can of worms’ which is used when a situation is created that will cause trouble or upset.

Idioms in any language are often interesting and sometimes even amusing. Whilst learning idioms is not essential, Chinese Chengyu will certainly improve your fluency and understanding of the Chinese language.

Below is a simple introduction to some useful Chinese Chengyu to whet your appetite. To learn more Chengyu you can check out the ‘Useful Chengyu’ flashcard sets in the Written Chinese Dictionary mobile app!
 

1. 马马虎虎 (mǎ ma hū hū)

马马虎虎

马马虎虎 is probably one of most well known Chengyu because the literal translation is ‘horse horse, tiger tiger’. This is somewhat amusing, but the most common meaning is something like ‘so-so’ or ‘not bad’.

Example:

你唱歌好听吗? (nǐ chàng gē hǎo tīng ma?) = Are you a good singer?
马马虎虎. (mǎ ma hū hū) = Just so-so.
 

2. 七上八下 (qī shàng bā xià)

七上八下

Similar to the English expression ‘all sixes and sevens’, the literal translation of the idiom is ‘Seven Up, Eight Down’. This Chengyu refers to a person whose mind is a mess and cannot think straight.

Example:

我心里七上八下,不知该怎么办。 (wǒ xīn li qī shàng bā xià, bù zhī gāi zěn me bàn.) = I’m all at sixes and sevens about what to do.
 

3. 不可思议 (bù kě sī yì)

不可思议

The meaning behind this Chengyu is that something is inconceivable or truly amazing. The characters literally translate to 不可 = ‘cannot’ and 思议 which means to ‘comprehend’.

Example:

居然是他赢了,真是不可思议。 (jū rán shì tā yíng le, zhēn shì bù kě sī yì) = It is unbelievable that he won the game.
 

4. 九牛一毛 (jiǔ niú yī máo)

九牛一毛

The translation of this idiom is ‘1 hair from 9 oxen’ and means to be a small thing amongst a huge quantity, like 1 hair amongst 9 cows. A similar idiom in English might be a ‘drop in the ocean’.

Example:

这点损失对他来说,只不过是九牛一毛。 (zhè diǎn sǔn shī duì tā lái shuō, zhǐ bu guò shì jiǔ niú yī máo.) = For him the loss was only a drop in the ocean.
 

5. 顺其自然 (shùn qí zì rán)

顺其自然

This Chengyu means ‘let nature take its course’. The first bigram 顺其 means to ‘allow something to be’, whilst 自然 means ‘natural’ or ‘naturally’. The idea behind this chengyu is that something should not be forced, but allowed to happen of it’s own accord, whether that be love or forging new relationships.

Example:

顺其自然不等于放弃。 (shùn qí zì rán bù děng yú fàng qì.) = Letting go is not the same as giving up.
 

6. 自由自在 (zì yóu zì zài)

自由自在

Meaning ‘to be free and easy’, this idiom translates as 自由 meaning freedom or liberty and 自在 which is to be ‘unrestrained’.

Example:

我最大的愿望就是可以自由自在的生活。(wǒ zuì dà de yuàn wàng jiù shì kě yǐ zì yóu zì zài de shēng huó.) = My greatest wish is to live as free as a bird.
 

7. 破财免灾 (pò cái miǎn zāi)

破财免灾

This meaning of this idiom is ‘a financial loss could prevent further disaster’ or more poetically ‘A loss of wealth is a gain of health.’ Basically, this idiom suggests that we should take solace when we lose something of value, as something worse could have happened. 破财 means to ‘lose property’, 免灾 is to ‘escape disaster’.

Example:

手机丢了没关系,就当是破财免灾吧。(shǒu jī diū le méi guān xi, jiù dāng shì pò cái miǎn zāi ba.) It’s OK to lose your mobile phone, just regard this as buying peace.
 

8. 飞蛾扑火 (fēi é pū huǒ) – 自取灭亡 (zì qǔ miè wáng)

飞蛾扑火

This idiom is what is known as a 歇后语 (xiē hòu yǔ), in which the second half of the saying holds the actual allegorical meaning. Sometimes the second meaning can be completely left out.
In this case, the first part of the idiom, 飞蛾扑火 means ‘a moth flies into the flame’ which refers to ‘fatal attraction’. However, the second half 自取灭亡, actually holds the real meaning, which is to ‘court disaster, or to ‘dig your own grave’.

Example:

他们这样做无异于飞蛾扑火。(tā men zhè yàng zuò wú yì yú fēi é pū huǒ.) =
What they did was no different to being suicidal.
 

9. 狗拿耗子 (gǒu ná hào zi) – 多管闲事 (duō guǎn xián shì)

狗拿耗子

This is another example of 歇后语. The first half translates as ‘a dog who catches mice.’ whilst the second half, 多管闲事 means to be meddlesome or interfere with others’ business.

Example:

我关心她,她却觉得我是狗拿耗子。(wǒ guān xīn tā, tā què jué de wǒ shì gǒu ná hào zi.) = I was concerned about her, but she thought I was interfering in her business.
 

10. 亡羊补牢 (wáng yáng bǔ láo)

亡羊补牢

亡羊补牢 literally means to ‘repair the pen after the sheep is dead’, but it’s allegorical meaning is to act belatedly or like the English phrase, ‘better late than never’.

Example:

为什么不给他打个电话道歉? 亡羊补牢,为时未晚。(wèi shén me bù gěi tā dǎ gè diàn huà dào qiàn? wáng yáng bǔ láo, wéi shí wèi wǎn.) = Why don’t you call him up and apologize? Better later than never.
 
This is just a short introduction to Chengyu and Chinese idioms. If you’re interested in learning more Chengyu, check out the Chengyu flashcard sets in the Written Chinese Dictionary!

chengyuss

You can also click on the links below to download the Written Chinese Dictionary app for your iOS and Android devices!
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  • Peter Bay Jespersen

    Adeline Yen Mah’s ‘A thousand pieces of gold: A memoir of China’s past through it’s proverbs’ is a book about Chengyu, many/most originating in the Shiji. Another of hers is ‘Watching the tree: A Chinese daughter reflects on happiness, spiritual beliefs and universal wisdom’, also about Chengyu, though I haven’t read much of that one yet. hth. And thanks SO much Hollie & fairies for the WCC dic, absolutely marvellous !

    • Hollie Sowden

      Thanks for the lovely comment, Peter. The Written Chinese fairies really appreciate it 😀 I haven’t read either of these books, but I’ll certainly keep an eye out for them.