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© 2001 – 2004 Patrick Hassel Zein

This page was last updated 05.10.2004


Idiomatic Expressions
in Chinese

A Study in Chinese Linguistics
by Patrick Hassel Zein (


>> Excerpt <<


3         Purposes and Methods

3.1      Purposes

The main goal with this study is to present a closer study of the Chinese chéngyǔ, their structures and contents, as well as try to find out how frequently the expressions are used in different sorts of texts. The goal can be divided into the search of answers to three distinct questions:

  1. What are the basic definitions and aspects of idiomatic expressions in general and chéngyǔ in particular?
  2. How frequently are chéngyǔ used in different types of Chinese texts of different eras and authors?
  3. How are chéngyǔ similar to or different from idiomatic expressions in other languages?

Included in this goal is the production of indices to be used for finding Chinese idiomatic expressions fitting given situa­tions or discussions. The subject of finding out how to use the idiomatic expressions in practice was not regarded as one of the goals for this thesis, so it is only brought up briefly and parallel with other discussions.

3.2      Methods

3.2.1       General Strategies

In short, the general strategies for this thesis can be summarized in a few points:

  1. Transferring a number of chéngyǔ together with specifications of their translations, usage and characteristics into a computerized data structure to simplify further studies. The number of expres­sions in the collection should be large enough to make statistical analyses reasonably reli­able.
  2. Analysis of the contents and structures of the found chéngyǔ.
  3. Analysis of the usage of the found chéngyǔ in a number of both older and newer Chinese texts.
  4. Documenting the results and producing a dictionary of all idiomatic expressions found.

The analyses were focused on idiomatic expressions that are popular and commonly used in modern Chinese. The collection of chéngyǔ was primarily based on literature read during the work with this thesis, on lists of chéngyǔ presented as examples in books on Chinese grammar, and on modern books labelled along the lines of “the most popular idioms” or “the best idioms”.

Working with literature that list chéngyǔ that are popular today, may in some cases be slightly misguiding. The use of idiomatic expressions may have been somewhat different in older Chinese texts, since other chéngyǔ may have been popular in other times, and hence the analysis of older texts may not be comparable with the analysis of modern texts. The given selection of expressions should be a reliable source for general information regarding the structures of the expressions, but the possible margin of error must be remembered.

This thesis does not go into details regarding the stories behind the chéngyǔ, or the literature the stories originate from, since that is both a very broad subject as well as not crucial for the intended goals set for the survey. For those who are interested in further details regarding the background of the chéngyǔ, there is a broad selection of literature already available on this subject. The bibliography of this thesis lists some suit­able titles to start with.


6         Summary / Evaluation

General findings in compressed overview

  • 84 % of the 500 examined idiomatic expressions are written with four characters. 6 % of the same expressions are written with four plus four characters separated by a comma. This means that at least nine out of ten of the examined chéngyǔ consist of four characters or four plus four characters.
  • 53 % of the examined chéngyǔ to which dated sources are known, are more than 2.000 years old.
  • The origins of the examined chéngyǔ, to which the sources are known, have a concentration around the period of the Warring States (战国, 475 – 221 B.C.). 20 % of the dated expressions (or 74 of all 500 examined expressions) were found to originate from that period.
  • There are clear differences in grammar and vocabulary between modern Chinese in general and chéngyǔ in particular.
  • References to the animal kingdom (primarily tigers, horses, oxen, chicken, dragons and fishes) are noticeably more frequent in chéngyǔ than in Chinese in general.
  • Modern Chinese texts seem to have higher frequencies of chéngyǔ than older Chinese texts. Articles in newspapers reach the highest quotas of idiomatic expressions among all investigated texts. There are some indications that the more infrequent magazines may contain the very highest frequencies of idiomatic expressions.
  • The surveys suggest that authors of different times have had different sets of idiomatic expressions in their vocabularies. It seems that modern authors are using somewhat older expressions than authors of older literature did.

Do like the Chinese; Cherish and preserve the linguistic treasury of idiomatic expressions!

Idiomatic expressions give a broad palette of colours to illuminate any language. At the same time, such expressions both build a connection to cultural roots, history and traditions as well as they enable communication that reaches below the surface of thought, to more or less metaphysical and philosophic discourses. One may say that idiomatic expressions make the souls of languages.

The Chinese chéngyǔ may appear extra potent since these build up a several centuries old foundation of knowledge and wisdom, at the same time as the expressions make an obvious uninterrupted link to hundreds and thousands years old grammar and literature – a link that can only be compared to the less and less common use of Latin or biblical quotes in European languages.

It is obvious that a deeper knowledge of idiomatic expressions will help anyone to become more eloquent in Chinese – as well as in any other language. It is possible to expand one’s knowledge of one’s own mother language by studying Chinese linguistics in general and the chéngyǔ in particular. The glossaries and indices compiled as a part of this thesis is only one step on the long road to full understanding of the chéngyǔ, but, as Lǎo Zǐ said, a thousand mile long trip starts right under your feet.

Humans of all nations, cultures and languages have similar ways of describing their feelings, thoughts and ideas in pictures.

It is clear that there are more similarities between English and other European languages than between English and Chinese. However there are still some rather intriguing similarities to be found among the idiomatic expressions of dissimilar languages – not to mention the fact that direct translations of Chinese chéngyǔ in many cases actually may be used in English texts without explanation. The yearning to understand and explain one’s perceptions and existence lies in the human nature. My belief is that this strive is reflected in the use of idiomatic expressions; that humans simply have a natural desire to draw parallels between their own experiences and thoughts on one side and commonly known facts about the nature around themselves on the other.

A closer study of the transportability of idiomatic expressions between languages could prove very interesting. What expressions can readily be understood between cultures? What similarities can be found among idiomatic expressions of different cultures?

Old-fashioned idiomatic expressions are very popular and frequently used in contemporary China.

The research of chéngyǔ in old and contemporary texts presented in this thesis implies higher frequencies of chéng­yǔ in modern texts than in the older novels. It is obvious that the Chinese of today like to embroider their language with centuries old expressions. It almost seems that the older the chéngyǔ become, the more aware the Chinese are about applying these expressions to their writings.

It might be very interesting to compare how the Chinese use chéngyǔ in daily speech as opposed to written material – and to compare the use of chéngyǔ in Chinese with the use of idio­matic expressions in Western languages. What differences might there not be in the subjects covered by European idiomatic expressions? Where does the European expressions originate from? What living Western languages can flaunt with indigenous idiomatic expressions (i.e. not counting quotes from the Bible, foreign literature or foreign historical persons!) that are more than 2500 years old and still in use?

Useful spin-offs

It is likely to be difficult for most foreigners to learn and keep all the listed chéngyǔ in mind – in such a situation, the detailed indices created for the expressions can be very useful for anyone composing Chinese texts. However, the collection of chéngyǔ compiled during the work with this thesis is not meant only for students of Chinese or people speaking Chinese – it should also make useful reading for anyone that wants to learn more about idiomatic expressions in Chinese, to enrich one’s vocabulary (in any language!) or simply as interesting philosophical reading.

For further details: see the addenda and possibly the web-site www.babylon.com, where the newest version of entire list of chéngyǔ can be found under the name “Chinese idioms explained in English”. The list of chéngyǔ has already been installed on thousands of computers around the World – a fact that can be seen as a clear sign of interest for chéngyǔ.

Hopefully, my efforts may help and inspire fellow students of Chinese to enter the world of chéngyǔ and possibly aid people that write Chinese texts or translate texts to/from Chi­nese.

Questions for further studies

The statistics presented in this thesis cannot answer all questions. Further studies of a larger statistic material may be needed for clarifications. Such studies may also help in finding other points of interest. A few open questions are listed below:

  • Differences were noted between the chéngyǔ used in older texts and those used in modern text. Does the older and newer texts not contain idiomatic expressions from the same books or authors? If so, what books or authors are more common in what sorts of texts?

·         It seems that Gāo Xíngjiàn has a lower frequency of idioms than other contemporary authors. Is his style of writing noticeably different from other contemporary authors? If so, then how? It may prove interesting to make a deeper analysis of the works of Gāo Xíngjiàn as compared with other authors.