【Learn Chinese】Chinese Idioms: The Ultimate Beginner's Guide

Chinese idioms, or chengyu (成语 chéngyǔ), are an essential part of the Chinese language. Read on to discover everything about Chinese idioms.
What are Chinese idioms?
Often called “Chinese idioms” in English, the term for idioms in Chinese, 成语 (chéngyǔ), can be directly translated as “already made words” or “formed words.”
Woven together over thousands of years out of ancient myths, fairy tales, philosophical musings, poetry and folktales, Chinese idioms are a testament to the longevity and continuity of the Chinese language.
How many Chinese idioms are there?
Depending on which source you consult, there are between 5,000 and 20,000 Chinese idioms. Although most are thousands of years old, they are still very much in use in contemporary Chinese.
There are also modern Chinese idioms that have recently popped up in Chinese online communities and Internet chat rooms.
How and when are Chinese idioms used?
Whether used to angrily emphasize a point during an argument, sincerely encourage someone not to quit, or try to show off mastery of the classics, Chinese idioms are bandied about on a daily basis, and some are quite useful for expressing a variety of different meanings.
If you don’t learn at least a few idioms, then many of the nuances of a conversation will pass you by.
The majority of Chinese idioms are composed of four characters. If they refer to a mythical story or historical incident, as many do, they will succinctly paraphrase some of the most important elements of that story or incident, thereby serving as a kind of mnemonic device for students.
Over the course of their education, elementary and high school students in China memorize thousands of idioms as part of their Chinese education.
Chinese idioms and the importance of history
The chéngyǔ 破釜沉舟 (pòfǔ-chénzhōu) transliterates to “break the pots and sink the boats” while 以一当十 (yǐyī-dāngshí) literally means “one to ten.” These idioms are both excellent examples of how essential it is to have a working knowledge of Chinese history in order to understand how to employ a chéngyǔ.
Were these Chinese idioms to be used in isolation among people unfamiliar with their historical roots, they would be nearly impossible to decipher. With some knowledge of their historical background, however, their meanings suddenly reveal themselves.
In the bitterly cold winter of 207 B.C., the commander Xiang Yu was at the head of a ragged force of 50,000 rebels. Their enemy was the Imperial army of the seemingly invincible Qin Empire under the leadership of Zhang Han.
The emperor sent Zhang Han south to put down the rebellion by any means necessary and placed more than 300,000 imperial soldiers under his command. To the shock and horror of his lieutenants, rebel general Xiang Yu decided that instead of hiding and waiting for the Qin forces to hunt him down and destroy his army, he would attack them.
He readied the army for battle and made for the Yellow River. Upon crossing the river, he again horrified his men by ordering that they sink their own ships, destroy their cooking utensils, and bring only enough provisions for 3 days.
The rebel Xiang Yu’s message was clear: victory or death. In the nine engagements that followed, Xiang Yu’s rebel soldiers are said to “each have taken on ten foes.” After losing more than 100,000 of his men, Zhang Han and his imperial troops turned and fled.
Thus, with Xiang Yu’s victory in mind, the meaning of 破釜沉舟 (pòfǔ-chénzhōu) becomes clear. According to Pleco, it means, “reaching a point of no return; to stake everything on success.”
Equally self-evident is the meaning of 以一当十 (yǐyī-dāngshí), which Pleco translates as: “every one of (them, us) is worth ten ordinary people.”
In this way, learning Chinese history will help you master chéngyǔ.