The GoGlobal Blog

成语, Cheng yu, a Peek into Ancient China

成语, Cheng yu, a Peek into Ancient China

The Chinese culture is very rich in history as one of the oldest civilizations in the world. A few days ago my Chinese tutor decided to teach me a few cheng yu’s after our lesson. Cheng yu’s are four character phrases that summarize stories from history and can be substituted in sentences as adjectives. (Almost) Every Chinese person knows and understands these phrases and can be used in literature and everyday conversation. The closest English translation would be Chinese idioms. Here’s the four she taught me:

望梅止渴 (Wang2 mei1 zhi3 ke3): Literally translated means “anticipate plum stop thirst”. The story behind it goes on one summer day a commander in the San Dynasty was on a distant campaign and on that particular day it was extremely hot. Nobody knew where to find water and men were dropping all around. To raise moral the commander shouted that there was a plum forest ahead and made the soldiers mouths water. They had arrived at the battle ground in good spirits. The underlying meaning in this phrase is “Living on hope.” Meaning in plain terms that it is mind over matter when you are faced with extreme difficulties.

草船借箭 (Cao3 chuan2 jie4 jian4): Literally translated means “grass boat borrows arrow”. There were three kingdoms and one area was more financially successful than the other. The rich kingdom could afford to make many arrows while the poor kingdom could not. So, the leader of the poor kingdom had many boats made of grass built and sent them out on the river that separated the two areas. The rich kingdom was ordered to fire as many arrows as possible at these grass boats however, the arrows simply stuck in the grass boats. The boats were brought back and the poor kingdom took all of the arrows stuck in the grass. They then used those arrows to defeat the rich kingdom. The over meaning of this idiom is “means of achieving one’s goal by wisely making use of others’ manpower or financial resources.”

卧薪尝胆 (wo4 xin1 chang2 dan3): Literally means “lay grass bed taste bitter.” The state of Wu launched an attack against the state of Yue). The king of Wu died and his son Fun Chai became the new king. Fu was determined to revenge. Three years later he led an army and captured the state of Yue’s king, Gou Jian and kept in in the state of Wu. Fu made Guo Jian live in a shabby home to raise horses for him. Guo was loyal to Fu but never forgot his humiliation. Many years later Guo was set free and he secretly accumulated a military force after returning to his own state. In order to make himself stronger he slept on firewood and ate a gall-bladder before having dinner and going to bed every night. He prepared the people of his state and eventually seized a favorable opportunity and wiped out the state of Wu. The overall meaning of this one is that “One who endures self-imposed hardships to strengthen one’s resolve to realize one’s ambition.”

东施效颦 (dong2 shi1 xiao4 pin2): Literally translated “[name of girl] frown”. There were two concubines and one was extremely beautiful with a retched  personality and one who was extremely ugly with a pure personality. The beautiful woman was so beautiful that even when she frowned people believed she looked even more beautiful. Seeing this the ugly woman imitated the beautiful woman, but in stead only making herself appear more ugly from frowning continually. The underlying meaning of this idiom is “Copying someone’s action to benefit from it, but end up with the negative result”. Or more simply put, “blindly imitating someone”.

Comments are closed.