Why Chinese Idioms Are a Waste of Time

A while back, I asked a Chinese teacher for a letter of recommendation, and received this email in response, written in English:

[cs_quote column_size=”1/1″ quote_cite=”” quote_cite_url=”#” quote_align=”Center”]I’ll be very glad to write one for you. You need not worry about your speaking. Since you have built up your body (characters, vocabulary and grammar), now it’s time to throw yourself into the swimming pool, I’m pretty sure you’ll be like a fish in about three months.

– Hu laoshi

This reply—a very kind response from a very kind man—typifies the gap between the Chinese and English conception of idioms (成语 chéngyǔ). For Hu laoshi, always anxious to improve his English, idioms were an opportunity to demonstrate culture and refinement. For us, they’re clichés. We don’t know what to do with them; Chinese speakers don’t know what they’d do without them.

No, seriously, we don’t know what to do with them. Back in 2009, this almost got Hillary Clinton into what Hu laoshi might call “hot water.” Even once you get over the initial hurdles and select an appropriate chéngyǔ (more on this later), it can be extremely difficult to figure out how to use it. To English speakers, most of these bad boys look like full sentences. Can you just throw one out there like a fully formed sentence? Can you use it as a noun? An adjective? A verb?

If you don’t have a native speaker ready to consult, the only way to figure this out is by resorting to a corpus (I recommend Jukuu, but remember that while the Chinese here is excellent, the English translations here are not always reliable) or entering the idiom into a regular search engine and paying careful attention to how the idiom is used.

Let’s look at two examples: two randomly selected idioms relating to burning,

炙手可热 (zhì shǒu kě rè, lit. broil hand feel heat) for example, is used most frequently as an adjective:

创新在今日中国是个炙手可热的词。Innovation is the buzzword in China these days.

While 死灰复燃 (sǐ huī fù rán, lit. dead ash burns again) is sometimes an adjective, but usually a verb:

他担心德国国家主义会死灰复燃。 He feared the revival of German nationalism.

While we’re on the topic of frequency, notice that idioms actually comprise a very small percentage of written Chinese, and an even smaller percentage of the spoken language. Check out newspapers. I’ve been reading BBC Chinese regularly over the past ten months, making flashcards of 20-40 terms per article, and in all that time, I don’t think that more than 20 of those flashcards have been idioms.

So for all the fun of impressing native speakers with your cultural familiarity, it’s easiest to have a passive understanding of idioms. This is somewhat akin to the relationship between English speakers and Latin: Because of shared history, I can decode a Latin phrase or two, even if I can’t produce one myself. (Apparently lol would be MC, mango cacchino)

Similarly, idioms in Chinese are delectable, antiquated nuggets of a dead language. They have been done much disservice by the term idiom, which suggests something much more casual. Real idioms are a cross between the classical allusion, Shakespeare, and the King James Bible verse. And I can’t really imagine an ESOL class that begins by suggesting students bone up on their Greek mythology and New Testament parables. Useful, yes, but essential, no.

(Confession/Disclaimer/Shameless Promotion for Classical Chinese: I was once voted Student Most Likely to Understand Any Idiom. Was this a deliberate effort on my part? No. It was the result of studying a few semesters of Classical Chinese. Which I recommend anyway, since it helps you decode more formal language.)

Idioms pose special risks for Chinese learners, since we tend to be self-motivated, up-by-our-own-bootstraps learners. When we look up idioms without cross-checking them in a corpus, and we’re likely to pick wrong. Then we come out sounding like revivified classics scholars. Oh Minerva! Alas, King of Chu! The results can be deeply inappropriate or embarrassing.

In this spirit, I’ll close with a well-meaning student’s response to Hu laoshi’s letter:

[cs_quote column_size=”1/1″ quote_cite_url=”#” quote_align=”Center”]Dear Hu laoshi,

Thank so much for writing my recommendation. As they say, Wherefore art thou Romeo?



Jamie Fisher

Jamie is a Mandarin linguist at Foreigncy and also a recent graduate, with double majors in Linguistics and East Asian Languages & Cultures. She specializes in Mandarin Chinese, with writing fluency in both Simplified and Traditional characters and has studied abroad in Taiwan and Guangzhou (Canton), China. Foreigncy is a language learning website for intermediate to advanced learners that uses mixed media tools to prepare you to read foreign language news articles and build a comprehensive vocabulary.