Similar to idioms, chéngyǔ (成语) are set, typically four character Chinese phrases. They are used frequently and often* have ties to Chinese history or ancient literature. Learning chéngyǔ is a great way to get exposed to Chinese culture and is a fun way to pass the time with Chinese friends if you’re waiting for the bus. Below are three chéngyǔ my students taught me this year.
Literally: Horse horse tiger tiger
Mǎmǎhǔhǔ is a phrase you can use when something (including you) is only so-so. For example, you can use it to describe a long, not especially great, not especially terrible day, how you are after that day, or that movie you watched on the airplane because you had nothing else to do. There are multiple origin stories for mǎmǎhǔhǔ (which is the case for many chéngyǔ). A popular one is that there was once a great artist painting on the wall of a cave. First one, then many people walked up to observe his work. They began to ooh and aahh. However, when they began to talk to each other, they realized they didn’t know whether the animal the great artist was painting was a horse, which is mǎ in Chinese, or a tiger, which is hǔ. Since they couldn’t decide what it was, they come to the conclusion that the painting wasn’t actually that great—it was only so-so.
Literally: Break the cauldrons, sink the boats
Figuratively (roughly): To pass the point of no return (and succeed because of it)
This chéngyǔ refers to a command military leader Xiang Yu (232-202 BCE) gave during a battle where his men were greatly outnumbered by Qin soldiers. In order to win, Xiang Yu’s men needed to break into the walls of a city and beat the enemy soldiers within. Xiang Yu’s command was as follows: Cross the river to get to the walled city, and then break (pò) our cooking pots (fǔ), sink (chén) our ships (zhōu), and leave only three days of food. His army thus either had to succeed or perish—and they succeeded! Thus, pòfǔchénzhōu describes a situation or tactic where you pass a point of no return and win because of the pressure this puts on you.
Literally: One arrow, two vultures
Figuratively: Hit two birds with one stone
I love this chéngyǔ for its resemblance to “kill two birds with one stone” (as well as the Russian kill two hares with one shot, the German slay two flies with one swat, and a surprising number of others). It comes from a story about Zhang Sun Cheng, a general renowned for his archery skills during the period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589CE). There are many variations in the details of this story as well, but while he is out hunting, his party sees two vultures. At this point he is handed two arrows, and to everyone’s surprise, he hits both vultures with the first one. Thus, one arrow, two vultures. Just as with two birds with one stone, it’s used to refer to situations where two objectives are efficiently achieved with one action.
* Some people don’t consider a four character set phrase a chéngyǔ if it doesn’t have a literary or historical origin—but that’s a debate I’ll keep out of this blog entry.