To Your Heart's Content

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Cheng Yu (成语)

What the hell is Cheng Yu?! They’re the perfect embodiment of three thousand years of Chinese wisdom, of a language constantly building up, changing, adding, amending, evolving, advancing, maturing, all the while in its own sphere, with little, perhaps no outside influence. A Cheng Yu, 95% of the time, consists of four characters which represent an idea that otherwise would take a sentence or two to describe. Most translate into sayings, expressions, or idioms in the English language; others simply wise sayings. And they mostly embody, in my opinion, the wisdom and experience of the Chinese culture. And there are thousands. Students in high school are forced to learn a tremendous amount of them (in fact, their final exam to graduate high school has one, and only one, which they must define and use, and describe its history); they are used in articles, in newspapers, in conversation. And in fact, the Chinese believe the more learned one is, the more adept his ability to use them in conversation—it is looked upon as admirable and sophisticated. There are dictionaries just for Cheng Yu, most extremely thick and heavy. I was lucky to find one, and only one, Chinese-English Cheng Yu dictionary. It’s amazing. And let me tell you, the moment you use a sophisticated Cheng Yu with a Chinese, they practically place you (a foreigner) on Mao’s right side.

The most interesting aspect of Cheng Yu is that they all have a story, anecdote, history, or poem behind how they came to be. Thus, its etymology is most important when understanding a Cheng Yu. If you don’t know the history or story behind the Cheng Yu, it is almost impossible to use it correctly. Of course, only the most learned can invent a Cheng Yu. Some are simple, with simple ideas and characters; and others just the opposite. Here are some examples (without the tones):

悲欢离合 = bei huan li he: the vicissitudes of life; separations and encounters; joys and sorrows; meetings and partings.

人之长情 = ren zhi chang qing: a constant occurrence in human relations; the way of the world.

做贼心虚 = zuo zei xin xu: a guilty conscience is a self-accuser; a guilty conscience feels constant feer.

劳臆结合 = lao yi jie he: strike a proper balance between work and play

曾经沧海 = ceng jing cang hai: one who has seen the grandeur of the ocean thinks nothing of rivers; having seen and experienced much

And one of my favorites:

倾国倾城 = qing guo qing chang: dangerously beautiful: a woman whose beauty would overthrow/collapse a kingdom.

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