Learning the right chengyu the right way

Ever since I started learning Chinese, I’ve heard people say that if I want to impress native speakers and show that I really know Chinese, the key is to learn chengyu (成语/成語). They are often presented as magic keys not only to the Chinese language, but also to the culture, the people, the philosophy and so on.

However, this approach has always irked me. The way chengyu are presented and taught is, in my opinion, flawed. In this article, I will share my own experience of chengyu and how I think they should be approached, both from a student’s and a teacher’s perspective. In case you’re not sure what a chengyu is, please read the article on Wikipedia.

My own experience of learning chengyu

Let’s look at a typical case (myself): Having heard that these idioms are the pinnacle of the Chinese language, as a student I want to learn as many as possible. I also find the stories behind the idioms interesting and there are lots of books written in English to explain these stories and the idioms they have created. When I try to use the idioms with native speakers, they are typically overjoyed that a foreigner has learnt these supposedly very hard phrases.

Then, after having learnt Chinese for many years, I figured out that most of this was wrong. Most of the chengyu I learnt were actually not that important and had a very limited usage (see below). When native speakers said it was cool that I used chengyu, it was more in a “oh, look, the foreigner is trying to use chengyu, how cute!” way. I don’t think I used many of those idioms in a correct way. I still don’t. Chengyu are much trickier than most students (and teachers) think.

For example, let me tell you about a little game I play when writing articles. I have a fairly good passive grasp of chengyu, so when I write articles, I often have an idea that there should be a chengyu that would fit in a particular sentence. I’ve come to see article writing as a boxing match: it’s me versus the idioms. When I use an idiom correctly, I score one point, when I use an idiom incorrectly or in a awkward way (as pointed out by a reliable native speaker), chengyu scores one point. I almost always lose. This is after having studied Chinese for many years and focusing quite a lot on writing.

In essence, I have three things to say about chengyu:

  1. Chengyu have a more limited use than you might think
  2. Always learn chengyu with a sentence
  3. You don’t actually need chengyu

Chengyu have a more limited use than you might think

The first thing you should know about chengyu is that they typically express a very specific concept. This concept is usually much narrower than the English definitions you will see next to it in a dictionary. Of course, this isn’t true for all chengyu; some even have very close counterparts in English (see this article on World of Chinese), but it is true in most cases.

If you have fully grasped the story behind the chengyu and its meaning, you might still get it wrong, because modern usage isn’t necessarily the same as it once was or native speakers interpret the story differently from you. You also need to grasp how the chengyu is used in a sentence. Is it used as a verb? A phrase perhaps? Both? Or it might just be the case that native speakers don’t use that chengyu very much at all.

If we take normal words and experiment by expanding their use to areas which we haven’t really encountered them in before, we will sometimes find that they work in this new context as well, sometimes we’ll find that they don’t. Through a mixture of negative and positive feedback, we slowly grasp how the words are used. When you experiment with words, you’ll be right a fair number of times, with chengyu, you will almost always be wrong.

The following drawing is a rough representation of what’s going on. The green circles represent correct usage and the white circles represent the learners understanding of that usage. If the circles overlap completely, the word or phrase has been mastered. As we can see, the process of learning words is mostly about adjusting the circles so that they match (of course, the size should vary too, but that would make the drawing very messy). For chengyu, though, the most significant difference between the circles is the size. Chengyu usually have a much more narrow usage than learners think.

Learning ChengyuThis leads me up to the second point.

Always learn chengyu with a sentence

The biggest mistake students (including myself) make is that they treat chengyu as normal words, which isn’t a good approach. Instead, learn each chengyu in a specific context. I don’t mean that you should just add an example sentence, I mean that you should learn the example sentence and the chengyu as one unit. Of course, the sentence should be a typical sentence that shows the way the chengyu is typically used.

In fact, some chengyu are only used to describe one specific thing, so if you know that one sentence, you’ve covered most of the uses of that chengyu! In other words, you should start from a very small circle and then slowly expand that if you find other examples of how that chengyu is used, rather than drawing a big circles and then gradually shrinking it. This will of course mean that you will use chengyu less, but you will at the same time avoid using them incorrectly most of the time.

My normal approach doesn’t work very well for chengyu

I’ve learnt most of my Chinese this way:

  1. Learn to understand something
  2. Read and listen a lot, pay attention
  3. Experiment and learn how to use what I already understand

This has worked very well for increasing all four skills in Chinese and I think this is a great method, provided that you spend enough time doing 2), which is where most people fail. Still, with hindsight, I realise that this method is horrible for chengyu. Yes, I can understand most of the idioms I encounter when reading, but I suck at using chengyu. This is because I thought of them as flexible building blocks rather than fixed expressions used to convey a very specific meaning.

You don’t actually need chengyu; they aren’t magic keys to anything

Chengyu are cool. I like the stories and I like the culture I gain access to through the stories, but saying that you have to be able to use lots of chengyu to get good at Chinese is simply wrong. Do you have to understand chengyu? Yes. Do you have to be able to use them? Not really. It’s perfectly possible to speak Chinese extremely well without using too many chengyu.

Your normal vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation matters much more than if you throw in a chengyu here and there. And remember, if you throw one in the wrong idiom, you’ll just show that you actually don’t know that much. As a beginner, it’s cool to be the cute foreigner doing his best, but that’s not so cool when you’re trying to grow up in Chinese and become an adult speaker.

Of course, if you’re Chinese is so good that it starts approaching an educated native speaker, you really have to start using chengyu correctly to really show your mastery of the language. You also can’t escape some common chengyus, both written and spoken. That’s not what I’m talking about here, I’m talking about the thousands of chengyu that pop up in books, articles and so on. Understand them, study them if you like, but do so because you’re interested and because you like it, not in a vain attempt to show off, because you’re most likely to shoot yourself in the foot.

If you don’t love chengyu, I suggest you learn the most common ones, especially those that can be used in a large variety of situations. The general rules is that if you hear a chengyu three times in different situations, it’s probably worth learning. An alternative is to check this article by Carl Fordham, who has gathered 20 chengyu that are actually useful. Never learn chengyu from huge lists you find on the internet.

A question of effiicency

The real reason I think people focus too much on chengyu is that the effort it takes to learn to use a chengyu is several times greater than the effort required to learn most normal words. Thus, you get much more value for the time you invest if you focus on high-frequency chengyu only and leave the rest for later. I’m not saying it’s bad to learn chengyu, I’m just saying that its not the best way to invest your time.

Horizontal vocabulary learning

When learning characters or words, or when failing to remember a character or word we have already learnt, most sensible teachers will urge you to deepen the knowledge of that character. Rather than simply copying it (which won’t work in the long run), you should aim at understanding the character and its components. This is what my sensible character learning challenge is all about.

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/kromo

When it comes to words, it helps immensely to understand the characters. However, focusing on depth isn’t enough to solve all problems, sometimes you need to expand your knowledge horizontally to neighbouring characters to solve a problem once and for all. This is what horizontal vocabulary learning is about.

Horizontal vocabulary learning

Rather than going deeper, you need to switch focus from the character or word in question and look at similar pieces of vocabulary. This is especially true for characters, but it’s sometimes also necessary for words. In other words, it’s not enough to simply learn about a character or a word, you need to learn how it is different or similar to other words, otherwise the risk for confusion is high.

Think of your knowledge as a web. You want a web that is interconnected at all levels, not only at some very basic level. If you only focus on the components, you will end up with a root-like system. That’s still better than having no connections at all, but it’s not as good as having a proper web.

Looking at similar characters or words is also a way of strengthening your overall knowledge and cleaning up bad mnemonics (more about this below). Let’s look at different kinds of confusing cases where horizontal character learning is a must.

Characters similar in form

There are many examples of when it really pays off to study characters horizontally. The most obvious case is phonetic components, which sometimes will reveal patterns you weren’t aware of, but which make remembering characters very, very easy. Since most (<80%) of all characters are semantic-phonetic compounds, this is important. For instance, I thought it was tricky to remember if there should be a dot (良) or no dot 艮) in characters like:

With dot (check all here): 娘, 浪, 狼, 莨, 阆, 琅, 稂, 锒, 粮, 蜋, 酿, 踉
Without dot (all here): 艰, 限, 垦, 很, 恨, 狠, 退, 垠, 哏, 恳, 根, 痕, 眼, 银, 裉, 跟

If you study these characters one by one, you might never see the pattern, but if you compare them, you’re likely to notice this: The right part of all these characters is phonetic, either 艮 (gen) or 良 (liang) and this can be seen in the pronunciation of almost all of these characters. Every character with 良 ends with either -ang or -iang, and starts with either l- or n-. Most character with 艮 end with either -en or -in, and start with h- or g-. This is incredibly useful to know, because it means that several details of these character are suddenly related. For instance:

  • If you know the pronunciation, you automatically know if it should be a dot or not
  • If you know how its written, you can guess the pronunciation (albeit not 100%)
  • You should exploit the difference between 艮 and 良 when creating mnemonics

Characters similar in meaning

The same applies to characters with similar meaning; only when put together side by side can you actually see how they are different. This is true for words as well, but I think the wider topic of dealing with synonyms in Chinese requires a separate article, so I won’t dwell on this for long in this one. For character learning, there are many components which mean essentially the same thing (this was discussed in this article as well).

  • 戈 (halberd, lance)
  • 矛 (lance, spear)
  • 殳 (halberd)

These characters look very different, but have almost identical meanings for people who aren’t experts in ancient Chinese weaponry. This problem arises because it’s hard to describe some Chinese words in English. There are no exact matching words for these weapons, so the ones provided above will have to do. The other option would be to actually describe the weapon itself, which is perhaps more useful but not very common in Chinese-English dictionaries.

Again, if you just study these separately, you will end up utterly confused. If you put them side by side and deal with them together as a group, it’s much easier. After some googling, it seems that 戈 is closest to the English word “halberd”, because it has a perpendicular cutting blade. 矛 seems closer to a spear (or perhaps pike) which doesn’t have a perpendicular blade at all. 殳 lacks a cutting blade altogether and for clarity, I think of this as a long cudgel.

This might not be 100% accurate, but by looking at these three characters and sorting out their different meanings, it’s now much easier to use them in mnemonics.

You might not even know that these characters are confusing you

Most of the time, students are not aware that this is happening and that the reason they fail is because they swap a character or a character part for another. When I study characters, I’ve learnt to keep an eye out for these problems. Basically, whenever I really think I’m right (for whatever reason), but it turns out that I’ve written the wrong character, this is a good sign that the solution might lie in studying horizontally rather than delving deeper.

In other words, if you fail to recall a character or component, you need deeper knowledge of the character, but if you confuse one part for another, you don’t need to go deeper, you need to expand horizontally and put the characters or character components into context!

Learning Chinese words really fast

After spending three articles building up our toolkit to learn Chinese more efficiently, the time is now ripe to actually use all these to something genuinely useful. It’s time to make those long-term investments pay off. Of course, as I’ve mentioned before, learning characters isn’t a serial process, so you shouldn’t wait until you’ve finished the earlier steps before using the method I describe in this article. Here’s what you should have read already:

  1. Character components
  2. Individual characters
  3. Characters and words
  4. Learning words really fast (this article)

This means that you should know why it’s important to know parts of characters as well as the meaning of individual characters. Do you feel ready? Let’s continue and see how this knowledge can be employed to learn faster.

As I have argued elsewhere, remembering things isn’t that difficult if you make use of these strategies:

The power of mnemonics

What I’m going to do now is to explain in more detail and through the use of examples how these principles can be used to learn words very fast. You will need to use some kind of spaced repetition software as well to make sure you remember everything. Using extensive knowledge of character components and individual characters, combined with mnemonics, I have averaged well above one thousand new words a month for long periods. This doesn’t mean you have to learn that much, but you can use the same method to learn fewer words quickly. This is about efficiency (time you spend to learn each character), not about absolute numbers!

The scenario

Let’s say that you want to learn five new words. They can of course be anything, but I’ve chosen some examples that I hope will illustrate the process clearly. The words are:

  • 生病 = to fall ill
  • 默契 = tacit agreement
  • 情操 = sentiment, character
  • 出落 = to blossom (about people)
  • 破坏无遗 (破壞無遺) = to damage beyond repair

Perhaps you know these words already, perhaps not. For most people I’ve met, studying these words is a mechanical learning process where they review the words by reading them to themselves, writing them down or, in rare cases, using them in sentences. I’m going to propose a different method which is a lot more fun and a lot more effective! The best of two worlds, you might say.

The solution, step 1: Learn the parts

It should be obvious by now why you need to know what the characters mean, so I will say no more about it. Note that I don’t indent to include the complete meaning of all the characters, simply the bits I find useful. Learn different meaning for a single character as you go along.

  1. 生病 – 生 “life; to be born, to grow” + 病 “disease; to be ill”
  2. 默契 – 默 “silent” + 契 “contract”
  3. 情操 – 情 “feelings” + 操 “to manage, to operate”
  4. 出落 – 出 “to produce, to exit; out” + 落 “to fall”
  5. 破坏无遗 – 破坏 “to break” + 无遗 “completely, thoroughly, nothing left”

The solution, step 2: Link the parts together

Now it’s time to connect the parts in a way that will make sure you remember them and what they mean together. For more general guidelines about this, please refer to the article about mnemonics (again). Here I will merely give three somewhat different applications:

  1. 生病 – This is a fairly straightforward case, because it’s easy to see the connection between the words. To have “disease” “born” within you is quite obviously the same thing as being ill. To make the picture more vivid, think of the illness as an embryo that enters your body and then slowly grows into an illness. It’s something “born” in you, a “living” creature. If you exaggerate, you can create a fairly scary mnemonic!
  2. 默契 – Still quite direct, but perhaps not obvious. If you’re going to cooperate with someone (such as in a ball game), you need to have a “contract” which dictates who should do what and when. This is not something you can talk about when you’re playing basketball, it needs to be “silent” and based on mutual agreement between the two of you. I have the picture of two people looking at each other, nodding knowingly as if they know a secret we don’t know. In the air above them hangs a signed contract, antique scroll style.
  3. 情操 – Now it starts getting a bit tricky. How can we turn “feelings” and “to operate, to manage” into a good mnemonic? I did it by looking at the various kinds of concepts covered by the word 情操, which appears in words such as “religious sentiment”, “of high moral character” and “feelings of nationalism”.  I think of a grey-haired accountant in a grey suit sitting in an empty office, managing his “feelings” and “sentiments”. He has a certain quantity of “sentiment” and he looks dejected, because he can’t figure out how to foster religious, nationalistic and moral sentiments all at the same time.
  4. 出落 – For this one, I’ve come up with an exaggeration that might also be a bit immodest (the best kind of mnemonic, even though I seldom tell others about them!). The word means “to blossom” as in a young girl becoming a young, beautiful woman. You don’t need too much imagination here to imagine what happens to a woman‘s body as she matures and what “producing” body parts might stand “out” so much that they spill over and “fall”. Do you think you will remember this word next week, even if you don’t review?
  5. 破坏无遗Most idioms are quite easy to remember if you know the characters they consist of. Sometimes, there is a real story behind the idiom that you can learn, but you don’t have to do that. In this case, the connection is obvious. Something or someplace is so “broken” that there is nothing left. 无 and 遗 means “not” and “bequeath”, so there is nothing left to bequeath to anyone. Actually, 无遗 means “nothing left” if used separately as well. This is not enough, however, you need something stronger. I think of an old family mansion on a small island in a beautiful lake. The problem is that the house has been bombed to bits and the child who should have inherited the place stands forlorn, looking at the ruins where “nothing is left”.

The solution step 3: Strengthen or replace weak links

If you do this with words you encounter, it might take you a while to come up with stories like those I’ve described above. This will become easier with practice. In fact, it will be second-nature to you after a while and then you don’t have to worry about it, provided that you know the parts well enough!

However, nobody’s perfect and you will forget some of the words. That’s because the links you created using words and characters you already knew weren’t strong enough. If you find yourself forgetting a word, you need to go back and review your mnemonic. Perhaps you can make it more exaggerated, funny, embarrassing or anything else that will make it easy to remember. Sometimes you have to start from scratch and create an entirely new mnemonic, but that’s okay. Coming up with good mnemonics is a skill that requires practice.


When you become adept at creating mnemonics quickly, you will find that you don’t even have to do it consciously, you simply look at a word, think about how the characters relate to each other and you’re done! Of course, it will take you a while to develop this ability and it doesn’t always go that easy. This skill is useful for learning everything, not only Chinese!

To give you an example, in early 2011, I conducted a small and very unscientific experiment to see how well this method works for learning vocabulary. Naturally, I’ve been using similar methods almost from the start, but I decided to test the limits. Going through the vocabulary list to an advanced level proficiency test, I found there were around 2000 words I didn’t know. It took me little more than three hours a day for five days to go through that list, averaging about 400 words per day, 135 words per hour or just over two words per minute. Using spaced repetition software, I was able to retain about 95% of these words, spending another ten hours over the following weeks. This doesn’t mean that I could use all these words properly, though, and learning words is of course only one part of language learning.

I don’t say all this to boast, I say this because I’m convinced that it’s possible for most people to do this (or something similar) given that you have made the proper preparations. Naturally, building up an extensive knowledge about individual characters and character parts takes quite a long time, but don’t give up, because every singe time you practise, you will get better at it.

Maintaining characters and words

Naturally, learning characters and words isn’t enough, you need to be able to remember them for a long time and access them quickly. The first problem is most easily solved by spaced repetition software (such as Skritter, which is geared towards writing characters) and the second problem by actually using Chinese as much as possible.

Good luck!

She bequeathed her collection of paintings to the National Gallery.

bequeath somebody something

His father bequeathed him a fortune.
2MXto pass knowledge, customs etc to people who come after you or live after you

Creating a powerful toolkit: Characters and words

Learning languages contains very few serial processes (first you do this, only then you don that), but since what I write here is by necessity a series of articles (or at least reading them is a serial process), it might appear that adding characters to your Chinese learning toolkit is the second step in the process after looking at the various components of characters (read this article now if you haven’t already). This is true in a way, but I want to bring this up because there is overlap between the two. You should by no means learn all components before you start learning characters!

Articles in this series

  1. Character components
  2. Individual characters
  3. Characters and words (this article)
  4. Learning words really fast

Learn character components and single characters when you have seen them a couple of times

Let’s have a closer look at how Chinese is structured. As we have seen, most characters are formed by combining various smaller elements that in themselves also mean something. Words in Chinese work in a similar fashion, although the logic behind the construction is clearer compared with the sometimes oblique etymology of characters. Most words in Chinese consists of two characters, but there are exceptions. For instance, train is 火车 (火車), so “fire” + “vehicle”. Very easy indeed. Want to have a railway station? Add 站, “stop, station” to the end and you’re done!

What’s a word? What’s a character?

The distinction between a word and a character is unique to Chinese and is far from obvious. A character is a single written symbol. All characters have a meaning and a monosyllabic sound attached to it, but not all characters can be used independently. A word, on the other hand, can be used independently. Think of them as what you have left if you break a sentence down as much as possible without changing its meaning. So, 火 “fire” is a character, but it’s also a word, since it can be used independently in a sentence and mean fire. 火车 (火車) “train” is also a word, but it’s a word that consists of two characters.

Why we need to break down Chinese words into individual characters

Having defined at least roughly what a character is, we can also see that the ultimate goal is to learn words, not characters. However, looking only at words is not very helpful. It would be like learning all characters without learning any of the component parts, which we have already agreed isn’t a wise idea. If you’re a beginner, you might learn that 大学 (大學) means “university”, 中文 means “Chinese” and 啤酒 means “beer”. Learning these words is fine, but sooner or later, you will have to start learning the components on your own, because few teachers focus on individual characters and components.

If you use a short-term perspective, it’s completely useless to break down words into characters. You don’t need to know that 学 (學) means “study” and that 大 means “big”; it’s simply a lot quicker to learn that 大学 (大學) means “university” and be done with it. However, remember our discussion about character components? It’s not a good idea to learn maths only by studying examples! Learning what 大 and 学 (學) means separately is essential and will save much pain later. If we want to learn Chinese efficiently, we have to make long-term investments.

In the long run, time invested in learning individual characters and character components will pay off handsomely. The principle is the same as it is for character parts: it’s easy to learn new words if you know the characters they consist of and what they mean. In order to use powerful mnemonics to help you remember words, even if you’ve only seen them once, you have to know the characters first!

Which characters should I learn?

Good question! In general, look up anything you see more than once. If this becomes too much, look up everything that you’ve seen more than twice. Apart from this, you can usually trust your textbook, because they seldom use very rare characters or words. On the intermediate level, you could start looking at vocabulary lists for tests, frequency lists and so on, but using textbooks written for foreigners is still a good idea. On the advanced level, consider going through frequency lists thoroughly and make sure you know all the individual characters (doing so boosted my reading ability a lot). Still, at any levels, learning words that occur naturally in your environment is a good way avoiding extremely rare words or characters.

Enough, teach me how to learn words really fast!

Take it easy! This article is already long enough as it is. I hope I have been able to explain what individual characters are and how they can form a part of your toolkit to learn Chinese. The next step in the process is similar to combining character components and radicals into characters, but this time we’re going to combine characters into words!