Chengyu (成语) are Chinese idiomatic expressions, usually consisting of four characters. They are equivalent to simple English idioms, such as “when it rains, it pours” and “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Knowing basic idiomatic expressions can increase your understanding of any language, not to mention your degree of acceptance by native speakers. With that in mind, here are ten commonly-used Chinese Chengyu. For each Chengyu, we’ve provided a literal translation and (where applicable) the essential meaning and a modern American English equivalent. If you need more help with Chengyu, or any other aspect of the English language, contact the Language Island in Atlanta. Our caring, passionate Chinese teachers can create a lesson plan that is tailored to your individual needs.
半途而废 (bàn tú ér fèi)
Literal meaning: To walk partway up the road then give up.
Essential meaning: To give up doing something halfway through.
English equivalent: Do or do not. There is no “try.” (This semi-famous quote is Yoda’s response to Luke in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back when Luke says that he will “try” to complete a difficult task.)
不可思议 (bù kě sī yì)
Literal meaning: Cannot (be) comprehended.
Essential meaning: Something too amazing and/or mysterious to ever understand.
理所当然 (lǐ suǒ dāng rán)
Literal meaning: Logically speaking, this should be the case.
English equivalent: It goes without saying.
抛砖引玉 (pāo zhuān yǐn yù)
Literal meaning: Cast a brick to attract jade.
Essential meaning: A humble way to contribute to a conversation.
English equivalent: This is just an idea, I’m just putting this out there, etc.
破财免灾 (pò cái miǎn zāi)
Literal meaning: To lose property is to escape disaster.
Essential meaning: Money isn’t everything; your money is less important than your health.
入乡随俗 (rù xiāng suí sú)
Literal meaning: When entering a village, obey all the local customs and traditions.
English equivalent: When in Rome, do as Romans do.
七上八下 (qī shàng bā xià)
Literal meaning: Seven up, eight down.
Essential meaning: Not being able to think straight.
English equivalent: All sixes and sevens.
骑虎难下 (qí hǔ nán xià)
Literal meaning: When riding a tiger it is hard to dismount.
Essential meaning: All you can do is a difficult situation is continue forward and deal with what comes to the best of your ability.
English equivalent: Stay the course; keep calm and carry on.
Literal meaning: To have absolutely nothing at all.
English equivalent: Not have a penny to your name.
一举两得 (yī jǔ liǎng dé)
Literal meaning: Achieve two things with a single effort.
English equivalent: Kill two birds with one stone.
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