Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

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 learning Chinese in general and I think it’s 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 efficiency

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.

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  1. Kenneth Fish says:

    I am not Chinese, but I spent most of my formative years growing up in Taiwan and attending local schools (I went through High School and Medical College in Chinese). I took the same tests as my classmates and so on – just as any immigrant here would. When I returned to the U.S. I worked in a language capacity for the U.S. government for a time. I was rated as “near native” on both written and spoken exams by the Department of State and D.O.D.

    My point? It is very important to understand Chengyu and their context, as well as what they imply and the color they bring to what is being said (or written). It is not important to be able to use them at all – in fact it might be seen as pretentious for a non-Chinese to use them more than very occasionally.

    I return to Taiwan every year (I hope to retire there, it is “home” to me). I very seldom hear even well educated Chinese using any of the standard Chengyu – however, there are a slew of new slang equivalents, so one must always strive to keep up or look bewildered.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      You bring up an excellent point I completely forgot to mention in the article. Using words that are too “fancy” might actually have adverse results. It’s one thing to throw them in and show people “hey, I’m a 認真 foreigner trying to learn your language”, but something else when you’re already at an advanced level. If you pepper your language with idioms and advanced phrases, people might instead think you’re trying to show off.

  2. dawa says:

    This is a very good article. Chengyu’s shouldn’t be used excessively and there’s a time and space for it. Like you said as long it’s in the right context, it’s alright. However there is one thing I would like to bring under attention. When I was learning chengyu’s, it struck me that it has a different linguistic structure as oppposed to idioms in the English language (or any European language Im concerned) which is a sentence on it’s own, whereas most chengyu’s cant exist on its own. My teacher told me it should be used as either a conjection or a stative verb/adjective (Eg 马马虎虎).
    In addition, while you should be ergonomic with chengyu, I would encourage students to familiarise themselves with it instead, especially the 100 frequently chengyu (we had to learn this by heart, no joke) as they show up quite a lot in the media and its interesting if you are learning classical chinese as well.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Thank you for your comment! You are right that students need to pay attention to how chengyu fit into sentences. However, this is unique for each chengyu and even though you can find clues in the structure of the idiom, that usually require an extensive knowledge of the characters and the composition of chengyu in general. There are quite a lot of chengyu that can be used independently, actually. I think Baidu is probably the best place to look for information about this. For instance, this is the entry for 十全十美. Under 用法 it says 联合式;作谓语、宾语、定语、补语;含褒义。I don’t know of any dictionary that does this in English, if anyone else knows, please leave a comment!

    2. Marian says:

      Hey there, I am pretty sure 马马虎虎 is not a Chengyu. Its a Redoublication of a two-syllable adjectives to increase descriptive meaning. 马虎 → 马马虎虎. Like 漂亮 → 漂漂亮亮 or 安静 → 安安静静. I think for some reason its very rare that somebody actually says 马虎 but still it does not have the structure of a Chengyu, which you can usually recognize easily, because Chengyus are actually not 普通话, but 古文.

      I think thats actully a very important point missing from the essay. If you really want to UNDERSTAND Chengyu and thereby make it much easier to remember and use them, you basically have to learn Classical Chinese. I think Chengyu mostly causes confusion, because people dont realize those idoms come from basically another language, many of them are quotations directly taken from Classical texts and use characters like ,所, 而, 之, 无 as grammatic particles like in classical Chinese. So my advice for everybody who wants a deeper understanding of Chengyu is getting the book: Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar by Edwin G. Pullyblank.

  3. Sara K. says:

    Re: is it worth learning chengyu (question in the newsletter)

    Of course, I think learning lots of chengyu well enough to understand them in context is valuable, especially when reading literary Chinese, but that’s not what you discuss – namely, knowing them well enough to be able to put them in your output.

    Learning chengyu well enough to use them is, in my opinion, only worth it if:

    a) they are really common (i.e. 莫名其妙)


    b) you have a specific purpose. For example, lately, I’ve been describing a lot of scenery, and it gets boring after a while if you just say everything is 漂亮. Obviously, there are other words which can describe scenic beauty which aren’t chengyu, but there happen to be a lot of scenery-specific chengyu, and when writing about spectacular scenery, using a chengyu or two really helps.

  4. Sam Duncan says:

    Hmmm. Maybe I work with a lot of pretentious people, but everyday in the office I hear chengyu said in conversation with people talking to me and with each other.

    I agree that using them too often can make you sound pretentious, and that using them wrong can make you look stupid (the English proverb “better to be thought a fool than open one’s mouth and remove all doubt” comes to mind), but sometimes a chengyu is just perfect for what you want to express, but easier than saying it out in a sentence.

    I don’t think there’s much difference between using chengyu and using proverbs in any language – if you walked around peppering your speech with proverbs in English people would think you were a bit strange, but sometimes you just need to use them. Of course you need to use them right, that’s obvious, but looking at the subject any deeper is just over-thinking it, in my opinion anyway.

    Also, I’ve noticed people use a lot of chengyu, especially used independently, chatting on QQ, which often feels to me the equivalent of a casual conversation, but perhaps the act of writing hanzi makes people use more chengyu than they would in actual speech. Any thoughts on this?

    1. Olle Linge says:


      Hmmm. Maybe I work with a lot of pretentious people, but everyday in the office I hear chengyu said in conversation with people talking to me and with each other.

      Note that I didn’t say that you shouldn’t learn to understand these idioms, I’m just saying that it’s not efficient to try to learn how to use them (except for the most common ones, obviously). Regarding your last question, this isn’t based on actual research, but I think you’re right in saying that chengyu are much more widely used in written Chinese.

  5. George says:

    Chengyu are actually portrayed in movies as the typical Chinese pendantic scholar.

    While I don’t take them too serious, I do have a couple of reference books for them.

    These days, it seems the main use is for the fun or irony of using one. Taiwan’s traffic is notoriously dangerous, so saying “The road is like a tiger’s mouth.” via Chengyu will be a smile. Or running into a crowded event and mentioning “People mountain People sea”.

    In other words, there is no payoff in being the pedantic scholar, Chinese or otherwise. But when people recognize your wit or irony, you have made a friend.

    One can play with Chengyu and get people to laugh.

  6. Ben says:

    The only thing I would add (and you did touch on this) is that chengyu are actually used quite often in written materials, so for Chinese students who would like to get to a level where they can read Chinese literature, knowing a lot of chengyu is absolutely essential. It’s not uncommon to see a dozen chengyu on a page when reading stuff by Eileen Chang, Moyan, etc. Unfortunately, for those of us who aren’t looking to use a bunch of chengyu in our spoken Chinese for the sake of showing off, learning them is a pretty thankless endeavor because nobody will ever know that you actually know several hundred of them!

  7. Tanya says:

    Thank you!!! I very seldom hear chengyu in everyday life. They are very interesting and can explain a lot about the Chinese mindset, but it’s really not worth trying to use them unless you are VERY certain of the correct usage – don’t experiment! If someone uses a chengyu I don’t understand, and it is a context in which I am free to ask, they are always quite happy to explain the meaning to me.

  8. Kenneth Fish says:

    I had this conversation with a friend of mine from Tianjin over the weekend. (She accuses me of speaking like a member of the older generation – which is true, as I was heavily influenced by my adopted father, a very well educated man of the pre-WWII generation). My friend made the point that in conversation it is much more important to understand and use 歇後語, especially if one is talking politics or gossip (which is about 90% of modern Chinese conversation….)

  9. linguaholic says:

    Thank you for this interesting post about chinese 成语。I have been learning Chinese for a few years as well and somehow I just can’t memorize the countless 成语 that I already learned. I do agree about almost anything you said in your post, however I am asking myself how I can learn 成语 more efficiently. In terms of Chinese language learning, I am wondering if there are maybe some syntactical rules within cheng yu? I am talking about the position of characters within a chengyu and also about the semantics of a chinese character within a chengyu. For example, the character 之 is often used in cheng yu and as far as I noticed, it is often used in the “third position”. I know that it usually stands for 的 within a 成语. This kind of knowledge already helped me a lot to improve my understanding of 成语. Are there any other “hacks” for learning and remembering Chinese idioms? Would love to hear more about that!

    1. Marian says:

      Yes, there is a method to the madness. Chengyus are taken from Classical Chinese text and therefore their syntax and grammar follow the rules of Classical Chinese (古文,言文言). For example 之 zhi functions as a demonstrative pronoun (that) or object pronoun (it, him, her) in Classical Chinese most of the time.
      For example: 必知乱之所自起,焉能治之。 You have to know where chaos originates from, than you can control IT there.

      Here 之 is first used as a marker of nominalization for 乱 and in the second part it functions as a object pronoun。

      Dont quote me on this, as my understanding of Classical Chinese Grammar is 马马虎虎 at best. ^^

  10. Kong Meilin says:

    It depens on what your aspirations are. 成语 are not necessary, if you just want to be functional in the language. However, if one has aspirations to become eloquent – here meaning to use exactly the right word/expression in a given context – then you will need to learn 成语。I also belive this to be the case, if you wanted to reach an academic level of language use.

    I like to compare 成语 not just to proverbs (as proverbs in English are not used as frequently as 成语 are in Mandarin) but to idioms, clichés or borrowings from literature in English. For example, understanding/using the following example expressions would probably require a higher level of English (perhaps also a knowledge of British English) since you probably cannot guess what is meant without actually knowing the expression. It is the same with many 成语.

    Go pear shaped
    red herring
    rock and a hard place
    slop chit
    cry wolf
    catch 22
    Pound of flesh
    Make one’s bed and lie in it
    and then of course sport analogies: sticky wicket, in the rough,on a par with etc

    If you wanted to speak English at this level, you would have to make a proactive effort in learning such expressions. Also note that if a language learner’s level is not „eloquent”, some native speakers may employ a more basic vocabulary to converse with that person and hence the language learner will not get exposure of the “higher level” of the language.

    But it all depends on your aspirations. I personally want to achieve this level of Mandarin and I find the effort I am putting in worth it.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think the point is that 99.99% of all learners are very far from being either eloquent or educated in a native sense of those word and that, therefore, it matters little if you can use 成語 or not. What you say is true, it’s just not relevant for a huge majority of students. My problem with the way 成語 are taught is that they are treated as being really important from intermediate up, whereas in fact they become important so late that it’s not relevant for most students. Of course, it’s essential to understand 成語, but not how to use them.

  11. Richard says:

    “You don’t actually need chengyu; they aren’t magic keys to anything”
    I can’t agree with this point. Chengyu are the essence of Chinese and they are extremely powerful tools. Chengyu only exist in the Chinese language, making it the most powerful language in the world.
    Chengyu are the keys to higher level Chinese. In English if you don’t use idioms it’s totally ok. However in Chinese if you don’t use chengyu, you are lower than elementary school level.
    Back to my senior high time, there was a university fair. I talked to a representative from Canada. He spoke really good Chinese. When I asked about2 things which was better. He said “各有千秋吧”. This really impressed me. A very appropriate usage of chengyu and modal particle. Not all Chinese can think of this chengyu in this situation!

  12. Christine says:

    This is a very helpful post, thank you.
    Do you have any list or link tipps for 歇後語, too?

  13. Amita says:

    Thanks for your timely article. I have ignored chengyu for a long time because I was not yet at an advanced level. However I have now started collecting and researching the most common ones for two reasons.

    I work in the media industry so I’m aiming to read media articles. Based on my reading and my friends’ reading, we find longer news articles and magazine articles use chengyu. Often they seem obscure because they describe a very rare, news worthy occurrence but I started collecting them to see if they pop up again.

    Recently I have been preparing for the HSK 5 exam. The reading section is very difficult to finish within the time limits. Although I’ve learnt all the standard vocabulary, my teacher and I found that it was mainly chengyu that were confusing me as I tried to read the stories quickly. She suggested I read through common chengyu so at least I can recognize them.

    So I started looking for common chengyu. My teacher recommended Baidu to look up ones I didn’t understand. I also really like the usage tips but I’m lazy and it’s hard to read quickly. I found Gene Fordham’s list. There are a couple of the “top 50” chengyu on memrise etc. But I found it hard to go further.

    My latest find is Routledge 500 Chinese Idioms by Liwei Jiao. The English explanations are a bit simple but it’s got good examples. It is good for beginners as it has pinyin, and can even be read by people who are just interested in the cultural meanings. It’s based on things like Chinese high school textbooks as well as academic texts so I’m confident the first 200 might be useful. I’ll let you know if I get to 500!

    1. Marian says:

      Haha, thats funny, I just started going through the exact same book 2 weeks ago, tackling it one Chengyu per day. Its definitely one of the better Chengyu dictonaries out there.

      1. Joris says:

        That book contains 500 suyu, not chengyu.

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