How to Better Understand Chinese Idioms – Learn Chinese HSK 4-HSK 6

Chinese idioms, or 成语 (chéng yǔ), are a treasure trove of Chinese culture, history, and literature. These pithy set phrases often consist of four characters and encapsulate wisdom passed down through generations. For a learner or even a fluent speaker of the language, diving into the world of chéng yǔ can be rewarding and challenging. But fear not; with the right approach, you can begin to unravel and appreciate these fascinating linguistic gems. 

Understand the Historical Context

Many 成语 chéng yǔ have their roots in ancient Chinese history, legends, or classic literature. Knowing the backstory gives depth to your understanding.

For example, the idiom “画蛇添足” (huà shé tiān zú) means “draw a snake and add feet to it.” It originates from a story where several people were dividing wine, and whoever finished drawing a snake first would win. While waiting for the others, one person drew quickly and added feet to his snake, making it look ridiculous. The idiom now means to spoil something by adding unnecessary details.

Visualize the Imagery

Chinese idioms are often very visual. Try to form a mental image of the idiom to understand its deeper meaning.

Take “掩耳盗铃” (yǎn ěr dào líng), which translates to “covering one’s ears while stealing a bell”. It tells of a thief who tried to steal a large bell but found it too noisy, so he covered his ears foolishly, thinking others couldn’t hear it. This idiom refers to someone deluding themselves.

Use Idiom Dictionaries

There are dedicated dictionaries and books for chéng yǔ. These can offer explanations, origins, and example sentences. Some popular options include:

  • “The Handbook of Chinese Idioms”
  • “Oxford Illustrated English-Chinese Dictionary of Chinese Idioms”

Practice in Context

While memorizing the meaning is a start, using it in sentences and real-life conversations will solidify your understanding. Listen out for idioms in TV shows, movies, and music. When you come across one, try to use it in your sentences.

Group by Themes

Like any language, Chinese idioms often revolve around common themes like nature, animals, and human behavior. You can find patterns that make them easier to remember by categorizing them.

Start with the Basics

Instead of diving into the most obscure idioms, start with those that are commonly used in daily conversation. For instance, “一石二鸟” (yī shí èr niǎo) means “one stone, two birds,” which is equivalent to the English “kill two birds with one stone.”

Engage with Native Speakers

Regularly chatting with native speakers will expose you to idioms in their natural habitat: real-life conversations. Ask for explanations and usage tips.

Reflect on Analogous Idioms in Your Own Language

Many idioms have counterparts in other languages. You can understand the sentiment behind them by drawing parallels, even if the literal translation seems confusing.

Be Patient and Persistent

Like any aspect of language learning, mastering chéng yǔ takes time. Celebrate small victories and continue building your idiom repertoire.


Chinese idioms are more than just fancy phrases. They offer a window into Chinese thought, history, and values. By investing time and employing the right strategies, you’ll enhance your language skills and gain a deeper appreciation for Chinese culture.


Do Chinese speakers use 成语 chéng yǔ frequently in daily conversations?

Many 成语 chéng yǔ are commonly used in daily conversations, written texts, and media. However, some are more archaic and are less frequently encountered in everyday speech.

How many 成语 chéng yǔ are there?

There are thousands of 成语 chéng yǔ, but not all are commonly used. For learners, starting with a list of 100-200 frequently used idioms can be a practical approach.

5. Can I understand 成语chéng yǔ by translating them literally?

Not always. Many Chinese idioms have metaphorical meanings, and a direct translation might not convey the intended message. Knowing the backstory or context is often crucial for comprehension.

Is it necessary to learn 成语 chéng yǔ to be fluent in Chinese?

While it’s possible to speak Chinese without using 成语 chéng yǔ, understanding and occasionally using them can enrich your language skills and allow for deeper cultural connections with native speakers.

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