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Chinese Culture >> Chinese Traditions, Society >>

Learning Chinese Idioms

One of the most fascinating aspects to study abroad in China is to explore the mystery of Chinese cultures alone with your Chinese learning. Sometime it could be different to say learn Mandarin and study Chinese. While the former is more referred to the language, the later can sometime also relate to Chinese cultural understanding. For language like Chinese, you can be sure how much the language and its cultural background are intermingled. With more than 5,000 years of uninterrupted civilization, the language has been evolving alone the history.

When you come to the learning phrases, sayings and idioms, it is always interesting. There are many proverbs, Chuyus, or Chinese idioms; you can understand them only in their historical context. So what you learn is not only the language itself, you are engaged into the culture that the language resides as well. The Chinese culture understanding hence will be the context for Chinese learning. The deeper you could grasp the culture, the easier your Chinese study could be.

As we know from our own mother tongue, for many cases, behind words, phrases, idioms, and sayings, there are stories and histories. Some of them are universal, which means you can understand them easily as the ideas are shared by many culture, like the saying "kill two birds with one stone" is understood in both English and Chinese. While others are more exclusive to particular cultures, as the Achilles' heel means one's weakness in English does not have any equivalent in Chinese.

To make Chinese leaning more interesting and keep you inspired to learn Mandarin. Now let's take some more examples and say how similar or different some of these Chinese and English sayings are.

Almost identical

Some sayings in Chinese can literally translated to English and the meanings do not change. For example, 火上浇油, Huo3 Shang4 Jiao1 You2 is exactly the same expression "add the fuel to the flame" in English; 隔墙有耳, or Ge2 Qiang2 You3 Er3, can be almost translated word by word to "Walls have ears"; while in Chinese to say 百闻不如一见, Bai3 Wen2 bu4 Ru2 Yi2 Jian4, literally translate as hundreds hearings is not good as one seeing is what to say "seeing is believing".

Similar in idea but you need cultural and historical understanding

There are sayings and idioms in Chinese and English express the same idea but you need certain background to appreciate them. "to teach fish how to swim" has its Chinese equivalent idiom班门弄斧, Ban1 Meng2 Nong4 Fu3, meaning showing off how to use axe in carpentry in front of the master Luban, the legendary ancestor of Chinese carpentry. There is the similar idea of forcing people to make their mind by eliminate any possible ways to retreat in both Chinese and English context but with slight different narration. "burn one's boats" in English, saying that in order to let his soldiers to fight decisively, Julius Caesar burned all the boats in case they thought they can flee by water. Similarly in China, the idiom is 破釜沉舟, Po4Fu2Chen2Zhou1, it was a historical account that the household warlord named Xiang YU, after led his army crossing the river for a tough fight, he commanded all boats to be sunk and all cooking tools to be broken so that his army would not have any other thoughts but fought for the victory.

Exclusive to Chinese context

Sometime for your Chinese learning, you just could not get your heart around some words, phrases and sayings if you don't know the cultural background. The Chinese idiom东施效颦Dong1 Shi1 Xiao4 Pin2 is to describe a blind imitation with awkward effects. Actually it was parable told by Chuangtzu, one of Chinese most famous Taoist philosophers. There was a beautiful lady whose name was Xishi, she was so charming that ever when she was sick, people appreciate her elegance. There was a day, she got heartache, she was so painful that she clutched her chest and was heavily frowned when walking in the village. Despite this people still praised her and had pity on her. While there was this average-looking young girl, whose name was Dongshi. ("Xi" refers to the direction of the west while "Dong" refers to the opposite direction of the east) She admired Xishi so much that she imitated everything Xishi did. After seeing the sicken Xishi acted so weak, she herself even imitated Xishi's sickness and walked around in the village. Instead of liking her, all villagers despised her did not like her imitation.

In Chinese to say Bi1 Shang4 Liang2 Shan1, or force someone to go to the Mountain of Liangshan, is actually suggesting if you push somebody so hard, one could revolts. In a household Chinese novel, Liangshan was referred to a place where crowds of rebel assembled. Once good folks, they were forced to rebel against the government because various reason and all came to Liangshan and lived as rebels.

Just like there are many English words from Christianity like Adman's apple, go the extra mile etc. When study Mandarin, you will find many phrases are from Buddhism, Taoism and you can be sure many from Confucianism. 五体投地, Wu3 Ti2 Tuo2 Di4, was a ritual in Buddhism to show your respect by prostrating yourself on the ground. Wu Ti, or five parts of your body, refers to your hands, feet and your head. Now in Chinese language usage, it is to express great admiration and respect.

Words, phrases, sayings like these are abound in Chinese. The more you learn, the more you will realize in your Chinese learning that they are both interesting and inspirational. Like many of those Chengyus, or Chinese idioms, many have their origin in Chinese parables, and they are trying to communicate wisdom and values in Chinese culture.

Hence, if you REALLY want to learn Mandarin and understand Chinese culture, you might carefully choose your Chinese study program, especially if you are thinking of study abroad in China. It will be a wise to make a decision after you figure out your needs, what the Chinese learning should cover then you can choose appropriate options accordingly.