Chinese idioms – why and where to start?

Chinese idioms or chengyu

Chinese learners are often told 成语 (chéngyǔ), the four-character idioms, are essential to reach native-like fluency. What are these idioms exactly and how important are they?

What are Chinese idioms or 成语 (chéngyǔ)?

The word 成语 (chéngyǔ) – taken literally – means so much as “already made words”. The typical English translation is Chinese idioms. If we can believe Baidu quoting the Xinhua dictionary, Chinese has more than 30.000 of them. Usually it’s a fixed combination of 4 or sometimes 8 characters that express a profound meaning that derived from ancients myths, fairy tales, Chinese philosophy, poetry and so on. This means that more often than not – to really grasp their meaning – you have to be familiar with the idiom’s story. To figure out how they are used in daily Chinese is even more complicated.

The benefits of learning Chinese idioms or 成语 (chéngyǔ)

Once you move beyond – say – HSK 4 or 5, it grows harder and harder to avoid learning at least a small number of the most basic of Chinese idioms. For native Chinese speakers they are an essential part of the language and culture, but – that being said – it’s not like they drop a chengyu in every second sentence. If you’re reaching for the higher fluency levels, you need a certain degree of passive knowledge of idioms to improve your comprehension of written and spoken Chinese. And – arguably – to take your “cultural literacy” to the next level, although in most cases that won’t be your priority as a learner. When I learned German for example, I read a great deal of Goethe, Schiller, E.T.A. Hoffmann and others, only to find out that “the common German” doesn’t care that much. In terms of improving my communication skills, I could have spent my time far more productively. I think it’s similar with Chinese idioms, that’s why I don’t want to overstate the benefits.

Let me quote John Pasden from Sinosplice instead:

“The fact is that teaching Chinese to foreigners on any large scale is a relatively new thing, and as such, some kinks are still being worked out. Early efforts at teaching foreigners involved a lot of transference of educational methods used on Chinese children. Memorization of Tang dynasty poems, writing out each new character hundreds of times, and memorizing lists of chengyu long before they’re actually useful are time-honored traditions when it comes to teaching Chinese kids their native language. That doesn’t mean these methods are effective for non-Chinese adults learning Chinese, especially when basic communication is the goal.” (

By the way, Chinese are impressed if non-native speakers use chengyu, but not always for the right reasons. Just think about how you would react if someone who speaks basic English suddenly answers your question by quoting Shakespeare.

Learn Chinese idioms – start from which level?

I just reviewed a new book on getting fluent in Chinese that states you should start speaking from Day One and skip anything non-essential. If that basic assumption is true, where do Chinese idioms fit into this? Just take a quick look at this Chinese idiom story book for children – is it productive to memorize all of them?

Well, unless you’re into the Chinese classics and ancient literature, the answer is: no, probably not. Others may disagree, but I can’t see why you should learn idioms that are mainly part of the written language and have limited usage. Instead, I’d suggest to focus on those idioms you actually encounter on a (more or less) daily basis in the “ordinary language”. A few of them, you typically learn early on, like:

These four idioms and a few others will get you a long way. So you don’t even have to worry about the when-question that much – you don’t come to them, they’ll come to you. And when they introduce themselves, you’ll see who’s important and who’s merely an infrequent visitor.

Learn Chinese idioms – what if I like to read?

That’s a different question, although the answer doesn’t really change. Once you start reading books like “To Live” or “Game of Thrones” in Chinese, you’ll need to expand your idiom-related vocabulary or will do so automatically in the process of reading. Here are just a few idiom examples from the first chapters of “Game of Thrones”:

Actually, I found dozens of them. Sometimes you can guess their meaning, sometimes you can’t. One thing’s for sure: it’s impossible or – let’s say – not very productive to memorize them all.

Learn Chinese idioms – how?

Efficiency is important, so focus on high-frequency idioms only. One thing to notice is that many idioms are used in fairly specific contexts, much more so than in English for example. As a non-native you might think you grasped the meaning and use the chengyu in the right way, unfortunately, it’s not that simple. That’s why it makes sense to learn them in a phrase, so you see how they are used in a sentence and get a sense of the context. I personally haven’t found this kind of learning material, so the best alternative may be to ask a Chinese friend for help.

Commonly used Chinese idioms

If you’re interested in Chinese idioms or – like me – struggling with reading novels and the like, tackling the most frequently used Chinese idioms can be a step forward. However, as far as I can see, there is no consensus on what the “most frequently used” idioms are.

Here’s the source I use a the moment: I started learning the “Essential Idioms” from the vocabulary trainer app Daily Chinese. Apart from a small number of familiar idioms, this is the most challenging set of vocabulary I’ve done so far. Five new idioms a day and retention is not good. Here are the first 35 to give you an impression (and to help my memory):


That’s pretty much it. If you’re main goal is real-life communication, then you shouldn’t prioritize Chinese idioms over high-frequency vocabulary that you can use to have real conversations. But if you are interested, focus on the most common examples like those from the Daily Chinese app I listed above.

PS Here are some articles about chengyu I found useful:

Graded Chinese readers

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Exit mobile version