By: Emma Livingston, Staff Writer
“Da peng zhan chi, fu yao zhi shang: The big bird spreads its wings and soars up to the highest sky.”
Chengyus are Chinese expressions, usually made up of only four characters, that derive their meaning from the ancient Chinese stories they refer to. Though the stories are ancient, these expressions are still widely used today in spoken and written Chinese.
Perhaps the best English analogy I can think of is a phrase such as: “Slow and steady wins the race.” This expression does not only derive its meanings from the actual words it contains, but also refers to the story of the Tortoise and the Hare, where the quick but lazy rabbit lost a race to the slow but hard working turtle. So the expression contains much more nuanced meaning than just its literal meaning.
The first time I heard about Chinese chengyus I was studying intermediate Chinese at Fudan University in Shanghai. I asked one of the more advanced students what she was studying in her class and she said, “Oh, it’s so difficult. We’re studying chengyus.” She had to explain to me what they were, and ever since then, I have associated understanding chengyus with having a high level of Chinese fluency. I thought, if I can understand chengyus and be able to use them in conversation, then I will have truly achieved a high level of mastery in Chinese.
Spoiler alert: I have never achieved that level of mastery. But, I did buy myself a children’s book that tells the story of a hundred different chengyus and learned some of the stories on my own. Today I would like to share three of these stories with you.
“Ba miao zhu zhang.”
This expression literally means: Pull shoots, help grow.
People use this expression to refer to someone that ruins something by trying too hard or makes a situation worse by being overly enthusiastic.
For example, if a parent tries to sign their 5-year-old child up for advanced math when they are just learning how to count, then you can say the parent is “ba miao zhu zhang.”
The story behind this chengyu goes like this: There was a farmer who was impatient for his rice plants to grow. One day, he had an awesome idea. “If I pull at the shoots, I can help them grow taller faster. Then my rice will be the first to harvest!” So he went into his rice field and pulled at every single one of the tender rice shoots. In the evening, he went home and proudly told his family what he had done. His son ran out to the fields to see the progress the father had made, and he found all the rice plants withered on the ground, dead.
邯 郸 学 步
“Handan xue bu”
Literal meaning: Handan, study walking.
This second chengyu was told to me by Leon Yang, first year MS student. This expression refers to Leon’s hometown of Handan, China.
As Leon tells the story: “In ancient China, there were seven countries. One of the countries is called Zhao, the capital city was my hometown. And a person in Wei heard Zhao people have a nice way of walking, so he decided to go to Handan to learn how to walk. At the end, this man didn’t quite master the Zhao way of walking; to make things worse, he forgot how he walks, so he had to crawl back to Wei.
“This chengyu means you are trying to learn something, but you didn’t get it, and even worse, you forget your way of doing things. It indicates that people should not always try to imitate what others are doing, if so, you may fail in mastering others’ ways, you can lose your own way of doing things.”
“Sai weng shi ma”
Literal meaning: Border old man loses horse.
This expression refers to something that may seem bad, but will actually bring good fortune. Alternatively, it can refer to something that seems like a good thing, but will bring trouble later on.
Mostly this expression is used like the English expression: “Blessing in disguise.” The story behind it is very interesting:
There was once an old man who lived with his son on a border state. One day, he found one of his best horses was missing. It had run away to the neighboring state. When his neighbors came over to commiserate with him, he told them: “Who knows! Maybe this loss will bring us good fortune!”
A few months later, the horse returned, and brought with him a beautiful horse from the neighboring state. This time the old man’s neighbors came over to congratulate him, but he told them: “Who knows. This horse might bring us ill fortune!”
One day, when the old man’s son was riding the new horse, he fell off and broke his leg, becoming badly crippled. The neighbors again came over to comfort the old man and the old man told them: “Who knows? Maybe this accident will bring us good fortune!”
A year later, the neighboring state sent troops across the border. It was a brutal and bloody war and all healthy, able-bodied young men were drafted to fight. The old man’s son, with his crippled leg, was unable to fight and so his life was spared.