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Chengyu: The stories behind the phrases!

By 2011-12-02 GAC

“Chengyu” are an important part of Mandarin language. These four character phrases, which are the equivalent of idioms in the English language are loaded with meaning, and often have interesting stories behind them, which explain their origin. In this post, I’d like to tell the stories behind the chengyu; if you can master a few, not only will your understanding of Mandarin improve (and your power to impress!) but also you’ll gain a deeper understanding of Chinese culture.


So let’s begin with this: (pò jìng chóng yuán) or ‘The broken mirror becomes round again’. This is used to describe the reunion of two lovers who have been apart for a long time. This is the story behind the phrase…


‘There once was a beautiful girl named A Ying. She met a courageous and handsome boy called Da Ming and the two fell in love, got married and had a baby. However, the Barbarians of the North threatened the country and the emperor called the country’s men to go to war. Da Ming was afraid he might never see his family again. He took a round mirror, broke it into two halves and gave one piece to A Ying. “Keep this with you at all times”, he said, “and I am certain we will reunite again some day.”


The war was very fierce, and while Da Ming was fighting bravely, A Ying and the baby had to leave the village they lived in. At her new home, she missed Da Ming even more. Whenever she missed him very badly, she would look at her half mirror and hope to see Da Ming again soon. When the war was over and Da Ming’s troops beat off the enemy, he realized his old home was not there anymore. He told everyone his story and showed them his half mirror. His situation was so touching that all the people helped to look for the girl with the other half mirror and eventually found her – and since that day, the Chinese say “the broken mirror is  round again” when two lovers reunite after a long period of separation.’


Isn’t that nice? So how about this one: (zhi lù wèi ma) or ‘To point at a stag and say it’s a horse’. It describes intentionally saying that one thing is something it’s actually not. The story behind this chengyu is based on historical accuracy; it appears in a record of the life of the first Qin Emperor, written by ancient historian Ssima Qian. The story goes like this:


‘During the reign of the Second Emperor of the Qin Dynasty, the prime minister Zhao Gao was thinking about usurping the throne. However he didn’t know how many of the court’s ministers would eventually support him once he had overthrown the emperor. To find that out, he used a simple trick and brought a stag to the imperial court.


“Your Majesty, this is a fine horse I brought.”, he said.
“It’s not a horse though”, the emperor replied.
“It is, and it can cover a thousand Li (ancient Chinese mile) a day.”


The emperor thought Zhao Gao had to be joking and was highly suspicious.


“How can horns grow on a horse’s head?” he asked.
“It’s a horse, I am telling you”, Zhao Gao answered, and pointing to the ministers added: “You can ask your ministers.”


The ministers of course had no idea what was wrong with Zhao Gao, because it was obvious that in front of them was a stag and not a horse. But seeing the sinister smile on Zhao Gao’s face, they understood what his true intentions were. So some of the ministers stayed loyal to the emperor and said it was of course a stag, but some confirmed that it was indeed a fine horse that ran a thousand Li a day.’


Whilst the end of the story is unknown, what has been handed down is the fact that later, when he actually made the emperor commit suicide, Zhao Gao executed those ministers who did not play along with him.


Hmm. And one last one for you…(peng chéng wàn li) or ‘A huge bird’s journey of 10,000 miles’; used to describe a bright future, or wishing someone success in their endeavor. The story comes from the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, it reads:


‘Once upon a time, a gigantic fish named Kun lived in the Northern Sea. No one knew how large it actually was. This fish could turn into a gigantic bird called Peng (usually translated as roc), who was thousands of kilometers in length. When the bird spread its wings, it looked like huge clouds in the sky. It could, in one stretch, fly from the Northern Sea to the Southern Sea on the other side of the globe and soaring up to 90000 li in the heaven.’


The bird could easily fly over a long distance without stopping. Now people use this Chengyu idiom to wish others a long career or a bright future.



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