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Two Characters Good,
Four Characters Better

Your Comrade considers himself a very lucky man. Being an old Beijinger with Chinese as his native tongue, he never had to face the daunting task of learning Mandarin from scratch. However, being a tolerant and compassionate soul he understands that for some of you laowai' (foreigners) out there the process can at times seem daunting, or even impossible. It is a towering linguistic mountain with myriad winding paths, not all of them leading upward or onward. It is plagued by adverse weather and riddled with pitfalls, sheer drop-offs, and countless other landslides on the road to success.

Now, I wouldn't want to be accused of xiao ti da zuo (making a mountain out of a molehill), or of unnecessarily discouraging any language students out there, but a major obstacle standing between you and liuli de hanyu (fluent Chinese) is the false horizon of chengyu (idioms). You can spend an eternity memorizing zi (individual characters) and ci (compound words), but just when you think you're getting the hang of things and start trying to pass yourself off as a shaoshuminzu (ethnic minority) to get Chinese prices at the Summer Palace, you realize that the hard work has only just begun.

But trust your old Comrade, ji bu ke shi, shi bu zai lai (opportunity knocks but once) - you really should try to use your time here to learn a little idiomatic Chinese.

Maybe giving you bunch of slackers advice on these matters is dui niu tan qin (lit. playing the zither to a cow or casting pearls before swine), but as we say, qiao fu nan wei wu mi zhi chui (even a clever wife can't cook without rice), and even the brightest of you will struggle to spice up your language without a little help from your dear old Comrade. So, I'll kai men jian shan (lit. open the door to see a mountain, or get straight to the point) and impart my gems of linguistic wisdom.

What constitutes a chengyu (idiom) is open to some debate, and is therefore yi yan nan jin (hard to sum up in a few words). Mostly, it includes the thousands of four-character set phrases, many of which are similar in style and usage to English proverbs, as well as others ranging from three to eight characters and beyond. Many are rooted in ancient Chinese culture, and make oblique references to poetry, philosophy or history. Often, the idioms themselves offer little clue to the meaning, and can only be understood if the background is known. For example, the phrase sai weng shi ma (old man of the frontier loses his horse) refers to an ancient story in which a horse is lost, but returns eventually with a second horse. Later, it throws the man's son, who breaks his leg. At first this is a great tragedy, but later it allows him to dodge military conscription. Only when all this is known does it become clear that the idiom is a warning not to make assumptions on whether something is good or bad because there could be an unexpected conclusion.

Another example of this is san ren cheng hu (three men create a tiger), which refers to a story in which a wise minister asks his king whether he believes there is a tiger in the city. The king replies no, but concedes that if he heard the same story from three men he would believe it.

Therefore the phrase "three men create a tiger" is used to describe a story that gains credibility as it is retold.

Chinese teachers take great delight in teaching this type of idiom. A single phrase can be dragged out over an entire lesson - great if the instructor is pushed for time doing lesson preparation. Although this bu yan qi xiang (going into great detail) is fine for hammering home the point and getting the feel for traditional literature, it can slow down your progress. Remember, ba xian guo hai, ge xian shen tong (lit. when the eight immortals cross the sea, each shows his own ability or there's more than one way to skin a cat). So if your aim is to have a decent idiomatic vocabulary, then up the pace a little and read the stories in English, but beware of yu su ze bu da (more haste, less speed).

Other Chinese idioms that have proverbial English translations include wushi bu xiao bai bu (the pot calling the kettle black), yi mao qu ren (don't judge a book by it's cover), fu shui nan shou (no use crying over spilt milk), bai wen bu ru yi jian (seeing is believing), wu yi lei ju ren yi qun fen (birds of a feather flock together) and yi jian zhong qing (love at first sight). A note of caution though, these are only rough equivalents of their English counterparts, and are not always appropriate in the same situations. When learning idioms, make sure your book includes the meaning, as a pure translation can be misleading at first glance. For example, ju yi fan san (ask for one, receive three) refers to a learned person, and does not have a similar meaning to yi jian shuang diao (kill two birds with one stone). Similarly, he zhe zhi fu (a fish stranded in a dry rut) means to be in a dangerous predicament, not like the similar sounding "like a fish out of water." Ironically, the Chinese wang yang bu lao (mend the pen after the sheep is lost) is praise for someone who took heed of his loss to prevent more damage - completely different from the critical "close the door when the horse has bolted" in English.

Another problem with this type of idiom is that they are not actually used by Chinese people on a daily basis. Imagine a would-be English speaker dropping proverbs into everyday conversation ("Don't take any wooden nickels!") and you get the picture. However, there are many phrases which don't require a degree in traditional Chinese literature to understand and are basically idiomatic ways to express everyday concepts. Maybe you know people who could be described as
dai ruo mu ji (as dumb as a wooden chicken), yi mao bu ba (stingy), ren mian tao hua (beautiful), da shou da jiao (extravagant) or xiaoshouxiaojiao (timid).

When faced with the task of learning chngy you may feel like wang yang xing tan (lamenting your smallness before the great ocean). But don't despair, even without ju gong jin cui si er hou yi (bending your body to the task until your dying day) it is possible to tie chu cheng zhen (lit. grind an iron rod into a needle or accomplish anything with perseverance). Just remember these two old maxims which Comrade used to get him where he is today: you zhi jing cheng (where there's a will there's a way), and of course shu neng sheng qiao (practice makes perfect).

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