Interview with authors of 500 Common Chinese Idioms
Full disclosure: Sinoglot earns not even 一分钱 (one cent) if you click on the link below and buy the book. However, we do accumulate good vibes from the improvement of Zhonglish around the world.
Title: 500 Common Chinese Idioms (成语五百条)
I first found out about this book from Carl Gene, who gave it a ringing endorsement. When I received it for Christmas last year and started thumbing through, it wasn’t hard to see why: they have done chengyu right for the second language learner! The 500 are selected by frequency from six corpuses* of spoken and written language. For each chengyu, two example sentences are constructed – and very well constructed! And of course there is lots of detailed explanation about history and usage.
I was so smitten I wrote the authors a mash letter and asked for a Sinoglot** interview, which they were kind enough to accede to. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Liwei Jiao and Cornelius Kubler:
SG: Can you tell us what got you interested in producing this book? Was there any specific a-ha moment that gave you the idea?
Jiao: About eight years ago I began teaching more learners of Chinese at intermediate and above levels. Interestingly enough I found many students like to use a quasi-idiom ‘马马虎虎’ (literally ‘just so-so’) to describe their own Chinese and they quite enjoyed using this idiom [For more on 马马虎虎, see Sinoglot post and many comments — Steve]. Actually it is not completely appropriate. When a native speaker of Chinese uses ‘马马虎虎’ on himself, there is a connotation of refusing to give details, self-deprecating or sometimes even showing off. I knew those learners did not really understand the connotation of this idiom.
Many students asked me to recommend a bilingual dictionary of Chinese idioms. I knew there were hundreds of dictionaries on Chinese idioms written in Chinese since a co-advisor of my master degree, Professor Liu Shuxin of Nankai University, is an authority on Chinese lexicology, but when I really searched for a bilingual dictionary I got only a few, and most of them are too simple or too hard since some of the examples are from the classical novel 《红楼梦》 (Dream of the Red Chamber). At that moment I knew it was time to write a dictionary specifically for intermediate and advanced learners of Chinese. To be specific, it was in the fall of 2006. This idea was supported by Professor Cornelius C. Kubler who is an expert on Chinese linguistics and a veteran of teaching Chinese as a foreign language, and Professor Weiguo Zhang who is an expert on computational linguistics of Chinese.
Kubler: I have for many years believed that for non-native speakers to achieve high-level proficiency in spoken and written Chinese, they must be able to use appropriately several hundred chengyu. I had written articles about this and had implemented this in training programs under my supervision at the US State Department’s advanced Chinese school in Taipei in the 1980s. Thus I was delighted when Dr. Jiao approached me about joining as co-author with him and Prof. Zhang.
SG: How many chengyu do you think the average Chinese person knows (can produce in conversation)?
Jiao: We did the statistics. There are altogether 755 Chinese idioms that appear in all Chinese textbooks of 24 volumes to be read by a mainland Chinese student from kindergarten to the end of junior high. As to the number the average Chinese person knows, I think it is well over one thousand, but in terms of production in conversation, the number drops dramatically, perhaps to 300. This is quite understandable since chengyu appear mainly in written form.
SG: In terms of its usefulness in the long-term “acquisition” of chengyu, what do you think of the primary school exercise of memorizing chengyu chains (where the last character of the preceding chengyu is the same as the first of the following)?
Kubler: I don’t think this is very useful. Much more useful is wide reading of all kinds of written materials and exposure to chengyu in context.
Jiao: The Chengyu Chain, 成语接龙 in Chinese, is a game played mainly by native Chinese at parties or as a contest for high school or college students. It requires the ability to think up dozens of chengyu in a second to keep the game going. Frankly speaking, this game is not fun if one knows only a handful of chengyu. I think it is harder than the game of spelling in English like ‘Spelling Bee.’ As to memorizing chengyu to increase understanding, it might help a little but it’s surely not the best way to learn them.
SG: Are there chengyu that are palindromic or have other word-play patterns?
Jiao: It seems there are no strictly palindromic idioms, but if the criterion is broader to allow a CD-AB pattern (the most typical pattern of chengyu is AB-CD with A, B, C, D standing for a character respectively), there are quite a few, such as ‘日新月异’ (#42 in our book) and ‘月异日新’, ‘天涯海角’ (#396 in the book) and ‘海角天涯.’
As I mentioned earlier, 成语接龙 (chengyu chains/relay) is the most common chengyu game. Other games include antonymous chengyu, such as ‘相辅相成’ (#84 in this dictionary) and ‘两败俱伤.’
SG: There are a number of Chengyu attributed to the Zhan Guo Ce 战国策, many of which use animal imagery, for example 狐假虎威 and 鹬蚌相争. The stories explaining these Chengyu seem quite similar, in style and in the use of animal characteristics, to Aesop’s Fables. Are you aware of, or have you noted, any connections between the two?
Kubler: Most of this is coincidence. However, Aesop’s fables were translated into Chinese in the 19th century and most of them are well known. Not all Chinese are aware that those stories are Greek in origin, not Chinese.
SG: Are there any (comic) figures in Chinese literature famous for their misapplication or mis-production of Chengyu, similar to Sheridan’s Mrs Malaprop?
Jiao: No, I do not know any figures, but commercial advertisements utilize this approach by altering components of chengyu to enhance memorization of their products to the audience. Condemnation from educational circles and from parents of students has been so immense that relevant administrations of the Chinese government have imposed heavy fines on those advertisements.
SG: Are there some Chengyu which are commonly ‘misspelt’ or ‘mispronounced’ by native Chinese speakers? I understand that 昨日黄花 is often used in place of 明日黄花. Are there many examples like this, and are there any examples of Chengyu which have already been transformed in this way?
Jiao: Chinese idioms have a long history, so a small fraction of them have changed meaning or register along the line. For example, 天花乱坠 comes from an allusion that a monk is preaching so well that flowers fall from heaven /the sky. A famous tourist site 雨花台 in Nanjing, China got its name from this story. The idiom had a positive connotation originally; however, its connotation over several hundred years became negative. Now this idiom means ‘wild boast about something.’
According to a paper, there are 28 chengyu which changed register (complimentary or derogatory).
SG: Do you see Chengyu as dead metaphors, and do you think reliance on Chengyu inhibits creative thinking?
Kubler: Quite the contrary. I think appropriate use of chengyu is a creative process that improves the content and style of communications.
Jiao: Just the opposite. Chengyu can make your language more appropriate and more powerful. You can observe the New Year editorials of major newspapers in China use many chengyu.
SG: Why do you think the four-character (or four-syllable) format took on such importance?
Jiao: Four-character and two-disyllable is a primary characteristic of chengyu. The disyllabic tendency of Chinese influenced this evolution.
Kubler: Rhythm or prosody is especially important in Chinese. This may be related to the fact that the written system of Chinese consists largely of characters, and each character is, with few exceptions, exactly one syllable.
SG: Do you have any plans for other works in the vein of 500 Common Chinese Idioms (by “in that vein” I mean works that are intended for Mandarin learners and that draw on solid corpus research for their materials)?
Jiao: I am currently working on a dictionary named ‘500 Common Chinese Proverbs and Colloquial Expressions’ which is to be published by the same publisher, Routledge in the summer of 2013. The two dictionaries are sister pieces.
*Not only that, but in the book itself the authors actually use the plural “corpuses” instead of the faux intellectual form so often favored in academia. The abolition of “corpora” is a quixotic campaign of mine, sure to be successful eventually, if only we are not foiled by the mocking enemy who keeps bringing up porpoises.
**The wise questions are from Randy and Sima; the rest are mine.
Just ordered it! I’ve always felt I was lacking in the 成语 department and a frequency-ordered, well-explained list is exactly what the doctor ordered.
You should make that link into an affiliate link though! I’d be happy knowing that you were making some money for spreading the word about this book!
Great, I hope you like it. I’d always felt my chengyu deficit too. Since I got the book, I’ve been adding the chengyu one by one to my anki deck in cloze form: using the example sentences and then leaving a blank for the chengyu itself. It’s funny that every time I learn one I then seem to come across it all the time (the frequency effect at work).
Yeah, I should figure out the Amazon affiliate thing. Or maybe Kellen will…
Idiomatic expressions are tough in all languages. But I think one thing that makes chengyu especially difficult for foreign language learners is that many of them belong to a unique part of speech. This is something that as far as I know is generally not taught. Chengyu are lexical, not phrasal — that is, although they look like phrases, they function as indivisible units, like words. But most cannot be flexibly used as nouns or verbs, or as subjects or predicates; they have a much more limited syntactic distribution. I suspect that the most common sentence structure in which they are found — and perhaps the only structure that some chengyu can ever appear in — is “(這)真是CHENGYU” “This is really (a case of) CHENGYU”. This is why having good example paragraphs illustrating chengyu is so crucial. And this is one reason that ordinary chengyu dictionaries can be so useless for helping language learners master active command.
Right. And although with only two examples per chengyu, the book can’t possibly cover all the usage issue, i’ve noticed the two examples seem to try to illustrate different possible uses. Moreover, it does try to explain the most typical grammatical usage of each one. I’m still very pleased with it, obviously.
Zrv can you give an example that illustrates that? I’m having trouble coming up with one. Admittedly my bank of chengyu is smaller than I imagine yours is, so forgive me if there’s an obvious one.
However, I think it may not be totally true (perhaps I’m reading more into the restrictiveness than you intended to imply). Why couldn’t any chengyu that works in 真是X also work in 如X or 像X? This seems to imply that these types of chengyu are just restricted phrasal verbs. For example, 缘木求鱼. One normally hears it as X真是缘木求鱼, but some online searching (google/jukuu) brings up “找工作犹如缘木求鱼。” and “此时欧债危机解决方案何必缘木求鱼？” This makes me think that it these types of chengyu aren’t special syntactically, but rather just extreme examples of the many restrictive pairings in Chinese. That is to say, these chengyu appear to be special because it is hard, if not impossible to think of an adjective or adverb that would be an allowable pairing.
But of course, I’m probably off base with this one. There’s a reason no one’s paying me to teach Chinese. (Yet…?)
Thank you for this interview! I have to go to the biggest bookstore in Guangzhou and check if they have this book. Sounds like it’s just what I need to get my essay writing (for example) to the next level.
pc, the examples you gave are perfect. 如X and 像X are also among the few constructions, along with 真是X, that they can occur in. (I didn’t mean to say that “真是X” was the sole possible usage.) You can’t say (so far as I know) 非常缘木求鱼 or 缘木求鱼两遍 or 别缘木求鱼 or 我不喜欢缘木求鱼. There are two possible analyses/explanations for this phenomenon.
One is the one you suggest, namely, that these are verbal expressions which just happen to be highly restrictive in terms of co-occurrence with modifiers and other structures. (I still wouldn’t say they are phrasal verbs, however, as they cannot be broken up or occur with verbal particles. You can’t for example say “缘了木求鱼” or “缘木求鱼过”. They really are single lexical items that superficially look like phrases.) But the other analysis is to say that all chengyu that fit this co-occurrence restriction pattern belong to a distinct part of speech. After all, in the absence of conjugations or declensions, it is precisely in terms of co-occurrence restrictions that parts of speech are defined for Chinese. Verbs are those words that can be directly preceded by 不; nouns are those words that can form a phrase following a number+measure, and so on.
Wouldn’t it be helpful to language learners if we could tag all idioms that share these co-occurrence restrictions as a particular part of speech? Then they would immediately know which syntactic structures are felicitous.
Thanks for the clarification, Zrv.
In regards to the last bit, in our so-called modern technical age, I don’t think it would be that hard to set something up that could acquire that data. As an example, first set up a few different criteria for segmenting chengyu into categories. Next take a chengyu dictionary or list, every user who comes on is given say 10 different chengyu, they select possible usage patterns and/or if they’ve ever seen it. Not only do we get tagged chengyu and get some updated information on chengyu knowledge and use in modern Chinese communities.
(~24000 chengyu in the chengyu dictionary I have, if appearance to the user is weighted based of previous frequency lists, at 10,000 users – it’s China after all, I think that’s possible – we get 100,000 tags weighted towards the ones that a learn is more likely to encounter. I’d say that’s a pretty useful set of information.)
Anybody think it’s worth it? Sinoglot’s break through into the academic world?
(I’m serious, I’d totally be down to get something like this up and running)
pc: thanks for the vote of confidence in Sinoglot, which as you’ve probably noticed is barely keeping up basic posting right now :-/
The technique sounds plausible, but wouldn’t we want native speakers? I don’t think we’d get the volume here to do it. It’d be more like a survey on some Chinese linguistics site, like that Beida one.
Ah, sorry if I wasn’t clear – I meant distributing it to Chinese users. If the normal Chinese learner is anything like me, I wouldn’t try that data as far as I could throw it.
Anyways, I’m totally serious – if anyone has some free time (sooooo never, haha), I’d be down.
Well, turns out the LWC is pretty useful for this. Just look up your favorite 成语 and you’ll find some good example sentences. Adjective Phrase? Verb phrase? Thingy-that-goes-before-a-地? All will be kind-of-sort-of answered!
Sounds like a cool project, but if I’m understanding correctly what data you’re trying to get, I think some learner’s dictionaries already contain such information For example, the New Century Dictionary of Chinese Idioms by Pan Weigui contains 2,300 frequently used 成语 along with information on their cultural background, and the usage restrictions. For example, for 哀鸿遍野:
Often used in written language to describe a chaotic scene caused by war or disaster. [Predicate] its subject is mostly a word or a phrase indicating a place. It may follow 处处 or 到处. [Attributive] modifies nouns referring to a place as well as 景象, 局面 and 情形. Also used as a clause.
There are also example sentences showing these different usages. Other syntactic slots that 成语 may fill are [adverbial adjective], [attributive], [complement], [object] and probably some more. Is this what you’re looking for?
Well, I don’t know what pc is looking for, but that’s sure what I’m looking for!
Daan, that dictionary sounds great. This is exactly the kind of usage information that most dictionaries lack. Thanks for the tip.
像鹬蚌相争这样的成语难度有点大啊 特别是它的拼写 我自己都经常写错