Chinese Chengyu (成语, Chéngyǔ) plays an important role in Chinese culture. They are the collected wisdom from ancient Chinese people; and they contain deep insights into human life. Behind the four-character Chengyu, there are always definitions, stories, and also rich philosophical concepts. Of course, there are many Chengyu describing life and success, and many of them originated from ancient Chinese philosophers or famous literati.
#1 废寝忘食 (Fèi qǐn wàng shí)
Literally, 废(fail)寝(sleep)忘(forget)食(eat) means “fail to sleep and forget to eat.” It describes people who are so hard-working that they don’t sleep or eat properly. Generally, it’s seen as a positive idiom, used to praise people who are diligent.
The idiom originated from the famous Chinese educator and philosopher Confucius. Confucius taught many students, many of whom also became famous later on. This Chengyu, “废寝忘食”, is a famous Confucius’ saying. Tsze Lu (子路), one of Confucius’ students, told his teacher that someone, who had heard of Confucius’ fame, asked him about Confucius’ personality. The question took Confucius by surprise. “Why don’t you tell him,” said Confucius, “that Confucius’ personality is that he studies so hard without feeling tired, and he even forgets to eat; but still teaches a lot and is not afraid of being poor. He even forgets his age!”
(Wèile kǎo shàng lǐxiǎng de dàxué, wǒ gēge měitiān fèiqǐnwàngshí de dúshū.)
In order to get into his ideal university, my brother studied so hard that he didn’t sleep well or eat properly.
(Hā lì bō tè xìliè de xiǎoshuō tài hǎokànle, yǐzhì yú wǒ fèiqǐnwàngshí de kàn wánle quánbù jí shù.)
Harry Potter novels are such page-turners that I read hard and finished all the episodes.
#2 勤能补拙 (Qín néng bǔ zhuō)
勤(diligent)能(can)补(fix)拙(stupidity) literally means “Being diligent can fix your weaknesses.” It can be a humble as well as inspiring idiom, indicating that people, even if they have weaknesses, can always overcome them with hard work.
(Gǔrén shuō, ‘qínnéngbǔzhuō’, zhǐyào nǐ nǔlì, yīdìng néng míbǔ xiāntiān de bùzú.)
Our ancestors said, “Being diligent fixes your weaknesses.” If you are hard-working, you can definitely fix the weaknesses you’re born with.
#3 及时行乐 (Jí shí xíng lè)
及时(in time)行(do)乐(fun), in other words, Carpe diem. It’s common for poets to mention the idea of seizing the moment, to enjoy drinking alcohol, and to appreciate the moon in their literary work. For example, in Cao Cao (曹操Cáocāo)’s “Short Lines Styles (短歌行, duǎngē xíng),” he said in the first line:
“对酒当歌，人生几何?” (duì jiǔ dāng gē, rénshēng jǐhé?)
Meaning, “I sing songs with alcohol, because who knows how short life can be?”, in which the concept “life is short” is expressed, so seize the moment and just enjoy it.
(Rénshēng kǔ duǎn, suǒyǐ yào jíshí xínglè.)
Life is short, so carpe diem!
#4 半途而废 (Bàn tú ‘ér fèi)
半(half)途(way)而(but)废(fail; give up) is a common Chengyu describing people who give up when they are halfway in completing something.
(Tā zuò shìqíng zǒng shì bàntú’érfèi, nánguài chéng bùliǎo dàshì.)
He always gives up things when he’s halfway there; no wonder he can never accomplish something big.
#5 功成名就 (Gōng chéng míng jiù)
功(contribution)成(succeed)名(fame)就(accomplish) is describing people successful in their lives, Their accomplishments in work have brought them fame. It’s a positive Chengyu and serves as a kind of goal for many people.
(Tā dào dà dūshì gōngzuò de mùbiāo: Gōngchéngmíngjiù hòu dài fùmǔ chūguó lǚyóu.)
Her goal when working in the big city is to be successful, so she can take her parents abroad to travel.
#6 逆水行舟 (Nì shuǐ xíng zhōu)
逆(opposite)水(water)行(go)舟(boat) literally means to sail the boat against the current. It inspires people to keep moving against the flow of the water, which means that they can conquer difficulties no matter what.
(Xuéxí jiù xiàng nìshuǐxíngzhōu, bù jìn zé tuì.)
Learning is like sailing the boat against the current, it either progresses or retreats.
The facts behind the origins of Chengyu, their background stories of how they came about, can be very intresting—historical events, folktales, or fictional fables—these can be the sources of Chengyu, all of which convey true meaning and enlightenment in four characters. There are also some Chengyu stories that personify animals, with ancient wisdom also expressed in four characters. If you are interested in more Chinese Chengyu, click here to read “Chinese Idioms and Chéngyǔ About Animals.”