Shall I learn Chengyus? 

Don't learn Chengyus says Kungfucius. Still you will learn some reading this article on why not to learn.
画蛇添足 - a common Chinese Chengyu

Shall I learn Chengyus? 

Nope! Stop learning and using Chengyus!!! 

Don’t 画蛇添足 when it comes to language learning! 

Provided, learning Chengyus can be fun, but there are better ways to accelerate your Chinese language learning trajectory than philosophizing about 4 character combinations from almost prehistoric times.

Why shall I listen to you about Chengyus?

Look, I am Kungfucius. If you don’t trust me, whom do you trust learning Chinese? Most Chinese language sources you will find are rather not to be trusted! 

Ok… and what will I learn by reading this article and how can I learn the Chengyus you used above? 

You will learn why not to learn Chengyus, but at the same time, Kungfucius will sneak in some of these beasts that you will not forget! In the end, you get a list of 25 Chengyus used in this text in the end of the text while reading this pamphlet about why not to use Chengyus. 

So in other words, 一箭双雕。(or simplified: 一石二鸟)

If you want to continue reading, here is to expect from Kungfucius wisdom about Chengyus:

  1. Why is it not useful to learn Chengyus?
  2. What are the most common Chengyus (you will just see them reading this text)
  3. What are the similarities of Japanese Yojijukugo and Chinese Chengyu?
  4. How long does it take to learn a Chengyu? 
  5. How old are Chengyus? 
  6. Whats wrong with Mamahuhu?
  7. How many Chengyus are there? 
  8. When shall I use Chengyus? 
  9. Are quotes the modern Chengyus? 
  10. What is the better alternative to learn Chengyus?
  11. Where can I found more resources about Chengyus? 

Well, let’s jump into it. 

Why is it not useful to learn Chengyus?

It is not efficient, marks you as a clueless foreigner and it’s just not useful. 

Let me explain. 

Well, you reap what you plant. 种瓜得瓜! 

If you plant Chengyus into your mind, you get a wealth of historical background in the best case and you get the usage wrong more often than not in the worst case. Look: Chengyus are four characters used in very specific cases. Most Chengyus are old. Very old. Very very old. Shakespear wrote a lot of his works around 300 years ago. Yet many Chengyus are more than 1000 years old. Actually, more than 2000 years old and therefore only comparable with idioms from the old testament in the western hemisphere. 

A simple translation is not enough to understand a 成语 (Chengyu).  

In fact, the translations you find on the internet are your enemy:

If you use it in a hospital to address the doctor, she will probably say: This patient 胡说八道

You need to know the original context and the context in which it is used nowadays. The original context was more often than not written in classical Chinese and using long form characters. It will be extremely difficult to read such a text and the text will have very little to do with modern language. In the same time, you could read 10 pages of modern Chinese dialogues. Much more efficient to learn languages. 

Second, there are some Chengyus that are mostly used by non-native speakers. In fact, I can’t remember any native speaker to naturally use 马马虎虎!It was either foreigners or Chinese language teachers. So just be aware that some chengyus exist mostly just for the sake of being learnt by non-native speakers….

And then, finally, it is just not that useful. If you feel ok, just say that. Don’t use mamahuh


Explain the issue, explain the consequences, explain the solution, explain any nuance or detail.


How long does it take to learn a Chengyu? 

Kungfucius says: You learn two Chengyus in two minutes now because you have seen them above. Let’s start with the real Chengy

一箭双雕 versus 一石二鸟

Both have the same translation: One stone, two birds. But there are some differences. Many differences! 


In the first case, it is literally an arrow that kills two birds of prey. A very decisive, powerful action. Plus, it is from an ancient text in the Northern History (北史)。It also literally means not just two birds of prey or vultures but both or a pair of birds of prey. Kungfucius likes this. 


Kungfucius doesn’t know the origin of this second option. The simplicity of it is a beauty in itself. The character for two (二)is just a doubling of the character for one (一)and the two other characters somehow please visually. Both are depicted in the simplified version. A theory is that this is a Chengyu that is actually a translation of the English (one stone two birds) into Chinese. It is simpler and shows efficiency, but less action and decisiveness than the first option mentioned above. 

What is the better alternative to learn Chengyus?

When you reach HSK6, you can focus on Chengyus. Before that, focus on the characters that are frequently used and on sentences that are frequently used. The HSK syllabus is helpful for that. Yet, it is more focussed on bookworms than on practical sages in the Dojo. 

For every day Chinese, listen in to podcasts and youtube videos. Properly learning a Chengyu might take an hour. In that time, you can listen to 2-3 interviews and read a little dialogue or short story. 

How old are Chengyus?

Chengyus and good wine get better with age. The source of many Chengyus are the canonical classical texts, the works that millions had to read, memorize and interpret for centuries as the core of Chinese literacy. 

Kungfucius remembers these times… poor Hunan merchants’ sons coming to the capital from the countryside to study and fail and open delicious soup restaurants. 

What’s wrong with Mamahuhu?

In fact, not much and everything. 

This is the first chengyu that generations of students learn within their first year or even first months of contact with Chinese language. And then it gets used. How are you? Good and you? Mamahuhu. It is simple as it it actually just two characters and the characters for horse and tiger are often among the first in the syllabus. 马马虎虎。 

Check how often you here this idiom being used by Chinese in everyday life outside of the classroom? Not that often. And western students of Chinese? They use the two horses and two tigers almost every week. That’s wrong with this particular chengyu.

When shall I use Chengyus? 

Not often. Do you write a journalistic text or some major work? Well, go ahead and use some. But in everyday spoken conversation? Don’t think so.

Kungfucius can buy vegetables without using Chengyus. Doctors can check their patients without using Chengyus. When you go and meet a friend to tell them about the new movie you watched, why use a Chengyu. More often than not it will lead to gibberish. 胡说八道! 

However, if you want to master Chinese, you should at least know some common Chengyus. Like the ones in this text and some more. The HSK can act as a guide. Plus, you 

Where can I found more resources about Chengyus? 

Ok, you will not listen to the warnings. Then off you go. some nice examples.

Kungfucius particularly likes the efforts of compiling and editing more about Chengyus at Laowaichengyu.

Other blogs compiled short lists with quick and dirty translations of Chengyus

In order to understand Chengyus better it is often good to think about the japanese equivalent and have a look at the discussions about Japanese Idioms on stackexchange

Same for the Chinese equivalent. The discussions can enrich the students knowledge about idioms.一箭双 

And of course Wikipedia has a wealth of Chengyu – often with links to the texts they are derived from. 


In sum, use as little Chengyu as possible and don’t learn Chengyu unless you are really into old texts or already passed HSK6.