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Chinese Chengyu story
Text in chinese annotated, pinyin and english definitions, chinese explanation, english equivalents.
Chinese Chengyu story
Text in chinese annotated, pinyin and english definitions, chinese explanation, english equivalents.

An english dictionary of chinese idioms
Dictionary of more than 30 000 Chengyu (chinese proverbial idioms) with calligraphy, pinyin, english translation, chinese explanations, synonyms, antonyms and context examples.

Chengyu - Chinese idioms

Four-character idioms, or chéngyǔ (Traditional Chinese: 成語; Simplified Chinese: 成语, literally "to become (part of) the language") are widely used in Classical Chinese, a literary form used in the Chinese written language from antiquity until 1919, and are still commonly used in Vernacular writing today. Classical Chinese can be compared to the way Latin was used in the Western world in science until recently. According to the most stringent definition, there are about 5,000 chengyu in Chinese, though some dictionaries list over 20,000.

Chengyu are mostly derived from ancient literature. The meaning of a chengyu usually surpasses the sum of the meanings carried by the four characters, as chengyu are often intimately linked with the myth, story or historical fact from which they were derived. As such, chengyu do not follow the usual grammatical structure and syntax of the modern Chinese spoken language, and are instead highly compact and synthetic.

Chengyu in isolation are often unintelligible to modern Chinese, and when students in China learn chengyu in school as part of the Classical curriculum, they also need to study the context from which the chengyu was born. Often the four characters reflect the moral behind the story rather than the story itself. For example, the phrase "破釜沉舟" [Listen (help·info)] (pinyin: pò fǔ chén zhōu) literally means "break the woks and sink the boats." It was based on a historical account where General Xiang Yu ordered his troop to destroy all cooking utensils and boats after crossing a river into the enemy's territory. He won the battle because of this "no-retreat" policy. The phrase is used when one succeeds by burning the bridge. This particular idiom cannot be used in a losing scenario because the story behind it does not describe a failure.

Another example is "瓜田李下" [Listen (help·info)] (pinyin: guātián lǐxià) which literally means melon field, under the plums. It is an idiom that has a deeper meaning that implies suspicious situations. It is derived from an excerpt from a poem (樂府詩《君子行》pinyin: yuèfǔ shī《jūnzǐ xíng》) from the Han Dynasty. The poem contains two phrases "瓜田不納履,李下不整冠" [Listen (help·info)] (pinyin: gūatián bù nà lǚ, lǐ xià bù zhěngguān) which describe a code of conduct that says "Don't adjust your shoes in a melon field and don't tidy your hat under the plum trees" in order to avoid suspicion of stealing. The literal meaning of the idiom is impossible to understand without the background knowledge of the origin of the phrase. However, some idioms such as "空穴来风" (pinyin: kōngxué láifēng, literally "an open hole draws the wind") which means to lay one's self open to criticism, and "素面朝天" are so widely misunderstood that their literal meaning are used despite their original meaning.

However, that is not to say that all chengyu are born of an oft-told fable; indeed, chengyu which are free of metaphorical nuances pervade amidst the otherwise contextually-driven aspect of vernacular Chinese. An example of this is 言而无信 (pinyin: yán ér wú xìn, literally "speaks yet (is) without trust"), which refers to an individual who cannot be trusted despite what he says, or essentially a deceitful person. The idiom itself is not derived from a specific occurrence from which a moral may be explicitly drawn; instead, it is succinct in its original meaning and would likely be intelligible to an individual learned in formal written Chinese. Note that the only classical-vernacular discrepancy present in this chengyu lies in the fact that the character 言 (pinyin: yán) is no longer used as a verb in modern Chinese.

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