19 Mar 成语 Chinese wisdom
In your language learning journey, chances are you will one day encounter a combination of words that seem to make no sense based on their individual translations. In Chinese, it is likely you were dealing with a 成语 Chéngyǔ, often translated as an idiom. 成语 also include proverbs and sayings—these expressions are often grammatically incorrect and cannot be translated into another language without losing their meaning. In different languages some idioms have the same meaning, for example: “to kill two birds with one stone” relates to the Chinese saying “一 石 二 鸟” Yīshí’èrniǎo, directly translated as one stone, two bird.
Chinese 成语, as seen above, often consists of four characters that together form a symbolic meaning. This meaning is often derived from myths, stories, and poetry, especially from ancient literature, meaning idioms to carry a piece of historical and cultural value. In total there are more than 5000 成语, of which about 1000 are used in daily life. The 成语 often convey the main morals of these ancient stories, for example, they can help you to make a decision and to deal with challenges and changes in life. But be careful! Using idioms correctly can be one of the most difficult parts of learning a foreign language.
The following 成语 is easy to understand due to its literal meaning: 入乡随俗
入 rù, go into; to enter, 乡 xiāng, village, 随 suí, to follow, 俗 sú, customs
This idiom indicates that when entering a village/town you have to adapt to local customs, often translated to the English phrase “when in Rome do as the Romans do.” But most idioms are much more difficult to understand due to their figurative meaning. The stories behind these Chinese expressions are an interesting and fun way to learn more about the origin of the 成语!
For the Dutch Embassy’s celebration of the 2021 Chinese New Year, Confucius Institute Maastricht composed a song about the honored scholar 牛角. The song consists of 12 idioms with the word Niu – ox/cow/buffalo as 2021 is the year of the Ox. In total, there are about 139 idioms with the character Niu or related to oxen. The idioms in this song speak to the appreciation you get for being a hardworking and eager to learn person/student aka a 牛角 书生.
牛 niú, ox, 角 jiao, horn, and 书生 shūshēng, scholar; student
牛角 书生 literally means horned scholar, but like many idioms, the figurative meaning is more complex. The story behind this idiom dates back to the Tang Dynasty. Young Li Mi was on his way to Fengshan riding on the back of an ox. He was so diligent that he hung his books on the horns of the ox, allowing him to travel and learn at the same time! From that day, people called him the horned scholar. This term is now used to refer to eager-to-learn students 牛角 书生.
Are you also a 牛角 书生and would you like to learn more about these special expressions? Check out the entire song and explanation on our YouTube channel!!