Interview with authors of 500 Common Chinese Idioms
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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.