Chinese idioms have been developed and refined over the long history of the Chinese language. They are succinct and pithy. Most idioms contain four Chinese characters, such as, “You (having) Sheng (sound) You (having) Se (color).” (有声有色) This literally means “having sound and having color”; that is, “vivid” and “impressive.”

Some idioms consist of only three or over four characters, such as, “Tao (peach) Li (plums) Man (full of) Tian Xia (the world)”, which contains five characters. (桃李满天下) This literally means “peach and plum flowers blooming all over the world.” This is used to describe a teacher who has many students (i.e., peaches and plums).

Another example includes, “You (having) Zhi (will) Zhe (persons) Shi (undertaking) Jing (ultimately) Cheng (succeed).” (有志者事竟成) This idiom is used to convey that a person with a great aspiration can ultimately succeed in what he or she does.

These and other idioms reflect the colorful and variegated world of China's past. From them, people can gain insight into many aspects of Chinese culture including astronomy, geography, history, literature, art, morality, ethics, and so on. These idioms reflect the trends and standards of various kinds of thought and behavior in Chinese culture. Idioms portray the culture in a lively and tangible way.

This article discusses the cultural connotation of Chinese idioms from the perspective of the relationship between idioms and culture, that is, by combining the language phenomenon and the cultural phenomenon.

Sources of Influence

There are several sources of Chinese idioms. One is mythology. Several examples follow:

Kai (creating) Tian (heaven) Pi (forming) Di (earth).”(开天辟地)

Jing Wei (a mythical bird) Tian (fill in) Hai (ocean)” (精卫填海), tells of a mythical bird who tries to fill the ocean with twigs and pebbles.

Kua Fu (a mythical figure) Zhu (chasing) Ri (Sun).”(夸父逐日)

Ba (eight) Xian (immortals) Guo (crossing) Hai (sea)” (八仙过海) translates to “eight immortals crossed the sea with their unique divine capabilities” referring to each of the eight using his unique talents to achieve the goal.

Tian (divine) Yi (garments) Wu (having no) Feng (seams)” (天衣无缝) refers to “doing something flawlessly.”

Dian (turn) Shi (stone) Cheng (into) Jin (gold)” (点石成金) refers to making something perfect with a Golden Touch.

Many idioms also come from fables. Several examples follow:

Ke (mark) Zhou (a boat) Qiu (to look for) Jian (a sword).” (刻舟求剑) (This idiom tells of one who dropped a sword into the water when he was traveling on a boat; he made a mark on the moving boat where the sword had dropped, so as to find the sword. This idiom is used to refer to someone who does things in a wrong way, who is stubborn, or who does not change his way of working with the change of the situation.

In “Shou (wait) Zhu (a tree) Dai (to wait for) Tu (hare)” (守株待兔), when one saw a running hare hit a tree and die, he went to wait under that tree for another hare to do the same.

Ba (pull) Miao (shoots) Zhu (help) Zhang (grow)” (拔苗助长) tells of one that pulled shoots upward to help them grow.

Lan (inferior) Yu (a musical instrument) Chong Shu (making the number)” (滥竽充数) is from a historic story in which a person who could not play the Yu instrument, mixed himself in a band of expert musicians who played the instrument, and pretended he was an expert musician too.

In “Wang (die) Yang (sheep) Bu (mend) Lao (stall)” (亡羊补牢), after losing a sheep to wolves due to a broken stall, one is encouraged to fix the stall to prevent further loss of sheep, which also means that it is not too late to take precautions for the future.

A third source from which Chinese idioms pull is Chinese historical stories. For the idioms of this origin, some are direct quotations from ancient Chinese literature. Some idioms were formed via condensation of the ancient Chinese articles, and some were formed through the infusion of foreign cultures or from the common, often spoken folk phrases.

Many Chinese idioms originated from the classic stories in Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. (These are discussed later.)

In addition, some Chinese idioms have come from Chinese historical stories, such as “Wan (intact) Bi (jade) Gui (go back to) Zhao (Nation of Zhao).” (完璧归赵) This idiom references a story in history about Lin Xiangru, the Prime Minister of the Nation of Zhao, who brought a priceless jade to the then most powerful Nation of Qin in exchange for land. He brought the jade back intact with strategy and courage upon finding that the King of Qin wanted to keep the jade without giving the land to the Nation of Zhao.

Fu (carrying) Jing (a kind of rod) Qing (voluntarily asks for) Zui (punishment)” (负荆请罪) references a story about Lian Po, who was a famous general of the Nation of Zhao. Upon finding that Lin Xiangru, the Prime Minister of the Nation of Zhao, did not want to confront him for sake of the nation, Lian Po carried a rod on his back to see Lin and asked Lin to use the rod to punish him.

Yi (first round) Gu (drumming) Zuo (cheers up) Qi (morale) (一鼓作气) translates to rousing the spirits of the soldiers with the first drum roll. Finally, “Po (breaking) Fu (cooking vessels) Chen (sinking) Zhou (boats)” (破釜沉舟) also references an historical story. That is, after crossing a river to fight the enemy, Xiang Yu, a general of the Nation of Chu, ordered his troops to have a good meal and then break the cooking vessels and sink the boats, so as to give his troops no alternative other than fighting to victory.

A fourth source for the Chinese idiom is Chinese literature. Several examples follow:

Shi Wai (out of the secular world) Tao Yuan (garden of peach)” (世外桃源) refers to a place out of the secular world, full of peace and happiness. The idiom was originally based on Peach Blossom Valley, a famous essay by Tao Yuanming, a very famous poet in East Jin Dynasty.

Cheng (ride on) Feng (wind) Po (break) Lang (waves)” (乘风破浪) translates to riding the wind and breaking the waves. This refers to one having great aspiration to succeed in the face of great challenges.

Lao (old) Ji (a steed) Fu Li (in a stable)” (老骥伏枥) is taken from the poem about Cao Cao in the Three Kingdoms period. It refers to an old steed in the stable that still aspires to gallop a thousand miles.

In “Shui (water) Luo (recedes) Shi (rock) Chu (emerges)” (水落石出), the rock emerges as the water recedes; meaning the truth is finally revealed. This is originally from an essay by Su Shi, a famous poet in Song Dynasty.

Spiritual Influences

Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism constitute the mainstream of traditional Chinese culture. The thoughts of these three religions are reflected in Chinese idioms. Many Chinese idioms have originated from the stories in Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.

For over two thousand years, Confucian thought took the lead role in traditional Chinese culture. There are many idioms that reflect aspects of Confucianism; for example, the cultivation of morality and behavior. Several such examples follow:

Jian (seeing) Li (interest) Si (thinking about) Yi (principle)” (见利思义) refers to that, in front of one's interests, one examines if one is conforming to the world principles. This idiom came from Lun Yu - Xian Wen (The Confucian Analects – Xian Asked). Zi Lu (a disciple of Confucius) asked Confucius what kind of person is a Cheng Ren (a grown-up). Confucius answered, “In front of one's interests, one first considers if it is conforming to the principles; under adversaries, one still does not forget what one has promised. These are the basic criteria for one to be a Cheng Ren.”

Another example is, “Jian (seeing) Xian (a sage) Si (thinking of) Qi (keeping up with)” (见贤思齐), which is from Lun Yu – Li Ren (The Confucian Analects – Living in Brotherliness). It means that when one meets a person who is better and more sagacious than oneself, one learns good morality from that person, so as to make oneself improve and become a sagacious person.

Guo (pass by) Hua Cun (keep) Shen (principles)” (过化存神) is from Lun Yu – Xue Er (The Confucian Analects – Studying). It means that when a man of honor passes a place, people in that place will be influenced by him and come into alignment with the principles of heaven and earth.

Fan Qiu Zho Ji” (反求貏己) is from Meng Zi (Mencius) – Li Lou Shang. It means that one goes instead to find the cause of the problems from within oneself. “If one cannot achieve the anticipated effect that one wants to achieve with one’s actions, one should go instead to examine himself. [Then] when his own behaviors are corrected and upright, people will naturally believe and follow him.”

Hao Ran (immense) Zheng Qi (righteousness)” (浩然正气) is from Meng Zi (Mencius) – Gong Sun Chou Shang. This refers to one’s having a righteous, upright and outspoken character. Mencius said, “I am good at cultivating my righteous, upright energy.” “This energy is extremely enormous and has extreme power.” and “This energy must be complemented with virtue and morality.”

There is also “Jian (seeing) Yi (righteous thing) Yong (courageously) Wei (act).” (见义勇为) This refers to being courageous in doing the righteous things.

Bo (broadly) Shi (giving out) Ji (helping) Zhong (people)” (博施济众) refers to broadly giving people help.

Yu (praising) Ren (people) Wei (doing) Shan (good deeds)” (与人为善) refers to commending people who do good deeds.

Ze (choosing) Shan (the good) Er Cong (to follow)” (择善而从) refers to following the good person.

A final example is, “Fu (wealth) Gui (powers) Bu Neng (cannot) Yin (corrupt), Pin (poor) Jian (humble) Bu Neng (cannot) Yi (swerve), Wei (threats) Wu (forces) Bu Neng (cannot) Qu (subdue)” (富贵不能淫, 贫贱不能移, 威武不能屈). This idiom indicates that neither riches nor powers can corrupt him; neither poverty nor humbleness can make him swerve from his principles; and neither threats nor forces can subdue him.

Chinese idioms also reflect Taoist culture. Two examples follow: “Dao (Tao) Fa (follows) Zi Ran (nature)” (道法自然), which indicates that the Tao follows what is natural. “Qing Jing (quiet) Wu Wei (inactive)” (清静无为) refers to letting things go in their natural ways.

There are many idioms from Lao Zi, the founder of Taoism. Several examples follow:

Tian (heavenly) Dao (principles) Wu (having no) Qin (relatives), Chang (often) Yu (given to) Shan (benevolent) Ren (persons)” (天道无亲,常与善人) means that heavenly principles make no difference between kinship; they treat all people the same, but being benevolent conforms to the heavenly principles; so the heavenly principles always stay with the benevolent persons and enable them to do things in a way as if the gods are helping them.

Another example is “Fa (the heavenly principles) Wang (net) Hui Hui (very large), Shu (sparse) Er (but) Bu (does not) Lou (leak)” (法网恢恢,疏而不漏)” indicates that the net of heavenly principles is vast; although it is not tight, no bad persons can escape from it. So whoever does evil things will be punished by the heavenly principles.

Tian (heaven) Chang (high) Di (earth) Jiu (long-time)” (天长地久) refers to something having existed as long as the sky and earth; it depicts the remote history of time or the unchanging nature of something.

Shang (highest) Shan (good) Ruo (like) Shui (water)” (上善若水) comes from Lao Zi’s words, “The highest good is like water which benefits all beings and does not compete with them.” It refers to the benevolent behavior of a person with a sublime character being just like the character of water. That is, water nourishes all beings and does not compete with them.

Qian (one thousand) Li (a unit of distance) Zhi Xing (journey), Shi (starting) Yu (from) Zu Xia (the first footstep)” (千里之行, 始于足下) describes that one’s success on a certain matter is an accumulation of doing tiny things to big things, and one should be steadfast and never give up. Lao Zi said, “A huge tree that fills one's arms grows from a tiny seedling; a nine-storied platform rises from a heap of earth; a thousand li journey starts with the first step.”

Additionally, there are also idioms like “Xian (showing) Su (uncolored silk) Bao (pushing out) Pu (unprocessed wood logs)” (见素抱朴) that means showing one's original nature, retaining the simplicity and innocence, or following nature.

Da Yin (Magnificent and best music) Xi Sheng (no sound)” (大音希声) means the magnificent and best music has no sound.

Nei (inside) Sheng (sagely) Wai (outside) Wang (kingly)” (内圣外王) refers to being sagely within and kingly without; that is, one has sagely moral qualities. These qualities, if used in the society, can be used to govern people.

Gong (success) Cheng (accomplished) Bu (do not) Ju (claim)” (功成不居) indicates that one should not take one’s success as one’s own.

Chinese idioms also manifest Buddhist culture. Confucianism and Taoism are native to China, while Chinese Buddhist culture is from a combination of foreign culture and the native Chinese culture. During the combination process, Buddhist culture and the traditional Chinese culture influenced each other. Buddhist culture took root in China. It also expanded its influence there, and it finally became an essential part of traditional Chinese culture. It exerted a far-reaching influence on the Chinese language and its vocabularies. Many Chinese idioms contain rich and dense overtones of Buddhist culture, and the idioms embody the Buddhist ideology of salvation of sentient beings. Several examples follow:

Fo Fa (Buddha Fa) Wu (does not have) Bian (boundary)” (佛法无边) indicates that the Buddha Fa has boundless meaning and power.

Fo (Buddha) Guang (light) Pu (everywhere) Zhao (illuminate)” (佛光普照) means the Buddha light shines everywhere.

Da (great) Ci (compassion) Da (great) Bei (mercy)” (大慈大悲) refers to being extremely compassionate.

Pu (widespread) Du (save) Zhong (many) Sheng (sentient beings)” (普度众生) means offering salvation to all sentient beings.

Idioms like “Ming Xin (purifying one’s mind) Jian Xing (showing one’s true nature)” (明心见性) also reflect aspects of Buddhist culture.

Yi (one) Chen (dust) Bu (not) Ran (pollute)” (一尘不染) refers to one not being polluted by any dust.

Idioms like “Yong Meng (vigorously) Jing (diligently) Jin (advance)” (勇猛精进) and so on are used to describe Buddhist cultivators’ assimilation into the Buddha Fa, their cultivation of their mind, and the elimination of karma, as well as their keeping their hearts pure and continually improving themselves.

The idiom, “Shen (divine) Tong (capabilities) Guang (broad) Da (immense)” (神通广大) is used to describe the divine and miraculous powers that are all-capable.

Wu Ti (the five parts of the body, including the two elbows, two knees, and head) Tuo (touch) Di (ground)” (五体投地) refers to extreme admiration for someone.

Shan (good persons) You (receive) Shan (good) Bao (returns), E (bad persons) You (receive) E (bad) Bao (returns)” (善有善报,恶有恶报) means good is rewarded with good, and evil meets with evil. This embodies the principle of “karmic retribution,” which is used to encourage people to do and pursue good things. It also serves as a warning and to enlighten people.

To be continued...