LinguaTute

Chinese Idioms and Their Origins: Reading Beyond the Characters

Chengyu (成语; chéngyǔ ) are an extremely important and interesting component of the Chinese language. Literally translating to ‘[already] formed speech’, these (mostly) four-character phrases succinctly summarise traditional pearls of wisdom, moral lessons and experiences from literature or history, and are often used by native speakers. Often referred to in English as ‘idioms’, this particular subsection of phrases are derived from classical stories and events, and are able to capture the essence of a story in only a few characters. 

These idioms have a range of linguistic uses, and may function as adjectives, verbs or noun phrases, or as whole sentences in their own right. They are often used by writers to show their depth of learning, or to show parallels between a situation happening before you and one which occurred in the past. As a learner, it is very satisfying to use these idioms – but to effectively use them it is important to understand the original story they are derived from – this also helps you remember them too! This article will explain the stories behind some Chinese chengyu, along with example sentences to show how to best use them. 

画蛇添足 (畫蛇添足) Huàshétiānzú – To gild the lily

Origin

This idiom literally means ‘to draw a snake and add feet’, and the basic meaning is to add something superfluous and thereby ruin the overall effect. This saying evolved from a fable from the ancient Chu (楚) state during the Warring States period (475 – 221 BCE), which tells the story of a man losing a competition by adding unnecessary details to a drawing. According to the story, after a family’s ancestral sacrifice, there was a large pot of wine left, and the family decided to hold a snake-painting contest to decide who would get the wine. 

One man quickly finished painting his snake on the ground, and, in his arrogance, began to add legs to the snake whilst boasting. However the second man to finish pointed out that snakes do not have legs, and so the first man’s additional efforts were pointless (and self-defeatist – he lost the wine!). This story illustrates the concept of unnecessary embellishment leading to failure, and giving rise to the idiom ‘画蛇添足’.

Usage and example sentences

This is often used at the end of the sentence as a predicate*, but can also be used as an attributive.

* The predicate is the part of the sentence expressing what is said about the subject, often including a verb and/or object, so in the sentence ‘the man ran to the train’ the subject is ‘the man’ and the predicate is ‘ran to the train’.

Ex. 1: 这条裙子已经很完美了,别再做任何修装了,那只会画蛇添足。

  • This dress is already perfect; if you make any adjustments it would ruin the effect.

Ex. 2: 那个故事的结尾没有必要,给读者画蛇添足的感觉。

  • The ending of that story is unnecessary, and gives the reader the feeling that the effect is ruined by a superfluous addition. 

塞翁失马 (塞翁失馬)- Sàiwēngshīmǎ – A loss can become a gain

Origin

The literal meaning of this idiom would be ‘an old man at the frontier of his country lost a horse’ – which doesn’t sound like it means much – but with context it will become clearer. 

This story was originally written in the Huainanzi (淮南子), an ancient collection of essays from scholarly debates during the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) which are concerned with defining the best conditions for socio-political order. The story exemplifies the Daoist (indigenous Chinese philosophy) view on fortune and misfortune.

The idiom originated from a story about an old man living on the border who lost his horse. Despite his neighbours’ sympathy, the old man remained unperturbed, saying, “Who knows if it’s a blessing or a curse?” When the lost horse returned with a foal the following year, the neighbours congratulated him, but the old man repeated, “Who knows if it’s a blessing or a curse?” Later, his son broke his leg while riding the young horse. Again, the old man remained calm, saying the same phrase. 

When war broke out and his son was exempt from conscription due to his injury, the old man reflected on the uncertainty of life’s events. 

The story teaches the lesson of maintaining an open mindset and considering the potential positive outcomes of seemingly negative events, illustrating the idea that blessings and misfortunes can be interconnected and may change over time.

Usage and example sentences

*it is worth noting that occasionally this idiom is also included with the phrase after it to create an eight-character phrase, as  塞翁失马,焉知非福 (the old man lost his horse, but it all turned out for the best)

Ex. 1: 他失去了那份薪酬好的工作后被迫做起了小贩,谁知道竟然发了大财,真是塞翁失马,焉知非福!

  • After he lost his well-paying job, he was forced to become a vendor. Who knew he would make a fortune? It was a blessing in disguise!

井底之蛙(井底之蛙) – Jǐngdǐzhīwā – Someone narrow-minded or inexperienced

Origin

This idiom literally means ‘the frog at the bottom of a well’. Taken from a passage of the Zhuangzi (庄子), a Warring States period text and one of the two fundamental texts of Daoism. Similar to the above example, each story exemplifies a moral lesson the Zhuangzi wishes to teach.

This story is about a frog living in a dry well who boasted about his comfortable life to a sea turtle passing by. The frog, content with his small world, invited the sea turtle to visit his “paradise,” but the sea turtle, after seeing the dirty, cramped well, politely declined. The frog continued to boast about his life in the well, oblivious to the sea turtle’s discomfort. However, when the sea turtle shared the vastness and majesty of the ocean, the frog was left stunned, realizing how limited his perspective was.

The story illustrates the concept of narrow-mindedness and limited perspective, giving rise to the idiom “井底之蛙,” referring to someone who has a narrow outlook due to limited experience or knowledge.

Usage and example sentences

This idiom is mainly used as an object. 

Ex.1: 我第一次到中国,走在北京的长城上,感觉自己像一只井底之蛙。

  • When I went to China for the first time and walked on the Great Wall in Beijing, I really felt naïve and inexperienced like a frog in a well. 

Ex. 2: 你井底之蛙是吗? 新闻没听啊?

  • Have you been living under a rock? You haven’t heard the news? 

杯弓蛇影 (杯弓蛇影)Bēigōngshéyǐng – be very suspicious and paranoid

Origin

This idiom literally means ‘the bow in the cup has the reflection of a snake’ which might sound like it has more obvious meaning of mistaking one thing for another, but the reality of this idiom is slightly different…

The fable this idiom is drawn from was first recorded in the ‘Fengshu Tongyi – strange gods’ (《风俗通义·怪神》), a work by the Eastern Han (25-220 CE) dynasty scholar Ying Shao, with a similar story being recorded in the Jinshu under the chapter of ‘Le Guang’(《晋书·乐广传》).

The story describes a man named Le Guang in the Jin Dynasty who loved entertaining guests. During one gathering, a guest was drinking from his wine cup and saw what he thought was a moving snake in the cup. However, he felt like Le Guang’s hospitality was so overwhelming that he could not refuse the wine and drank it, before leaving abruptly.

Le Guang did not see this friend for days after, and paid a visit to see if he was alright. When he visited the friend, he found that he had fallen ill, and asked how this had happened since only a few days ago he was in good health and drinking at his douse. The friend confided in him that he had drunk a snake which was in his wine cup. Le Guang thought about this mysterious snake, and suddenly realised that he had a bow hanging on his wall, and he thought this might have cast a reflection into the wine cup which resembled a snake. He invited his friend round again to show him this reflection, and when Le Guang removed the bow, the ‘snake’ disappeared too. The friend recovered from his illness soon after.

This story illustrates the concept of seeing imaginary dangers or illusions due to anxiety or suspicion, giving rise to the idiom “杯弓蛇影.” This is also sometimes used as a metaphor to describe the fear aroused by suspicion of gods and ghosts.

Usage and example sentences

This idiom is mainly used as a predicate. It is derogatory or negative in meaning. 

Ex.1: 逃犯听见尖锐的声音就以为是警车,简直杯弓蛇影。

  • When the escaped convict heard the piercing noise, he thought it was a police car; but he was simply paranoid.

Ex.2: 使病人确信她真的有病,并非杯弓蛇影,这是对她进行治疗的第一步。

  • Assuring the patient that she is really ill, and not just imagining things, is the first step in her treatment.

Conclusion

Through these examples, hopefully you can see how important it is to understand the allusions or history behind these idioms, especially when the idiom themselves are very concise and their meaning is not self-evident. A lot of these stories are fable-like, and comparisons can be made to some western moral stories such as Aesop’s fables (but that’s for another article!). Try and use these idioms in their correct contexts to really impress your teachers or friends, and when learning new idioms, try to understand the story they come from so you can use them most effectively!

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