Chengyu are four or five character expressions in the Chinese language that are similar to idioms in the English language and an estimated 5,000 to 20,000 exist. They are derived from the Classical Chinese language and it is important to understand the context in which they are used in order to appreciate their full meaning.

Language learners that have a good understanding of Chengyu can impress Chinese people because it is a mark of sophistication and higher level of fluency in the Mandarin language. Knowing the stories behind chengyu will help deepen your understanding of Chinese culture. Some people believe that mastery of chengyu is not important to be able to effectively use the Mandarin language, but to each his own.


Example of a Chengyu

“破釜沉舟” po4 fu3 chen2 zhou1 – This chengyu means to “break the woks and sink the boats.” The story behind this chengyu is that a Chinese general, Xiang Yu, ordered all of his troops to demolish all of the silverware and boats after they invaded an enemy’s territory.” This no holds bar approach to military attacks helped create this phrase.

“脱颖而出” tuo1 ying3 er2 chu1 – This chengyu means a sharp stick points out literally. However, its true meaning is that someone shows off their true talents. This phrase could be similar to the cream rises to the top.

“万事如意” wan shi ru yi – This chengyu means may all your wishes come true. This phrase is often said when wishing someone a happy Chinese New Year.

“一日千秋” yi2 ri4 qian1 qiu1 – This chengyu means one day, a thousand autumns. This phrase means that change has occurred rapidly. For example, you could say that technology has advanced rapidly, one day, a thousand autumns.