Wednesday, August 11, 2010

On Chinese Idioms, or chengyu

As any intermediate and up Chinese speaker would know, the Chinese language is filled with these idioms called chengyu (成语), basically where four characters--individually insignificant--are placed together to express something much more. The more advanced a student of Chinese becomes, the more frequent chengyu appears in his or her textbooks. And, at the risk of over-simplifying the dynamics of Chinese academic writing, the more chengyu a writer is able to incorporate into his or her own writing, the more likely the work will be well-regarded or graded highly.

A friendly waitress at a restaurant I frequent explained it like this: "When you write an essay, you should fill it up with chengyu, especially in the opening paragraph, as to leave a wonderful taste with the reader." When asked if it isn't sometimes better to use one's own expressions, she confidently replied, "No, because history and society have already established these phrases to be most appropriate. Our own words won't be as good."

These chengyu range the entire gamut of human literary expression; whatever you want to express, there is a chengyu for you. How do you describe a person who unwaveringly dedicated his or her entire life to a lover? 从一而终 (congyi er zhong). To "compare apples and oranges" (yes, I know, an English idiom) is to 一概而论 (yigai er lun). A stingy person? 一毛不拔 (yimao bu ba) or literally, a person who won't even "pluck a hair for you."

Why do I discuss chengyu here? I will not deny it: they have been a thorn in my thigh ever since I began my second semester of Chinese. Each chapter of my textbook contains a number of chengyu for me to memorize, and as all my close friends and family members know, my memory is not the sharpest. Thus, for me, memorizing chengyu has been the most difficult part of learning Chinese. I readily admit to this; you can be the judge of my bias.

I wanted to talk a little about chengyu also because I think there is something about the ubiquity of idioms in Chinese writing and what that says about the Chinese language and mentality.

I believe studying chengyu is definitely worthwhile, but more for historical and cultural understanding than for literary necessity. For example, one of my favorite chengyu is 东施效颦 (dongshi xiaopin). The first two characters, 东施, refers to an extremely ugly female figure in Chinese literature. Her counterpart, 西施 (xishi), is perhaps the most beautiful female figure. In this story, 西施 fell ill one day but did so looking just stunning. Seeing this, 东施 thought this was a way to become beautiful, and fell ill herself. Of course, she remained hideous. Thus, this chengyu is often used to describe someone who imitates another person and fails miserably. By learning this chengyu, you get a small glimpse into a fascinating part of China--its folklore.

I don't think it would be too harsh or unfair to say that chengyu restricts imagination and self-expressions to a certain extent. Why describe the brilliant colors of autumn trees when you can sum it up with 五颜六色 (wuyan liuse, or "five or six colors")? How would you describe the type of person who flies in private luxury planes, goes to the Maldives for a weekend outing, and wraps a Benjamin around his or her cigar before smoking it? 挥金如土 (huijin rutu). The educated Chinese would know these idioms (migrant workers, village residents, etc, are a different story), and they were all taught that chengyu and the words of Chinese literary giants cannot be bested.

I'm not saying that chengyu should be completely banned; it would be extremely foolish and an unimaginable loss to the language. However, contemporary writers and students of Chinese, at times, should be encouraged to select the new and innovative over the old and common. In class, when I use two or more sentences to express my thoughts, my teacher likes to interrupt and suggest a chengyu of similar meaning. Even the idea of creating new chengyu is frowned upon. Sometimes, I use the basic structure of an existing chengyu to make my own; the teacher would furrow her eyebrows and say something along the lines of, "I've never heard that before. Doesn't exist, don't use it." So what if it doesn't exist now? It can only exist if someone creates it, right? And all chengyu has to start somewhere.

What I am advocating is actually not that radical: Hu Shih, a prominent intellectual and writer in China's transition from the Qing Dynasty to a Republic, discouraged using the words of generations past and instead, stressed the importance of living in the tendencies of today. A guest lecturer to my class agreed, saying that you should use your own words if you able to do so clearly and accurately. Unfortunately, I don't think reality and expectations are yet in line with this opinion.

Of course, these are just some undercooked thoughts of mine, hastily jotted down in a blog post, and I won't even pretend they do justice to a literary tool that is older than most nations today. It is definitely something I think about a lot though, especially when cramming for tests. Foreigners are often quick with their criticisms, without much thought beforehand.

人各有见 (renge youjian)--to each his opinion.


Unknown said...

Well said for such a "quickly jotted down" blog entry.

Gang said...

Haha, so maybe not so "hastily"

Eileen Peach Regan said...

"quickly jotted down" = bs