Статья опубликована в рамках: Научного журнала «Студенческий» № 7(135)
Рубрика журнала: Филология
CHÉNGYǓ – CHINESE IDIOMATIC EXPRESSIONS, THEIR CHARACTERISTICS AND CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE
The aim of the present article is to introduce the readers to one of the most puzzling and interesting parts of the Chinese language, which are the “Chéngyǔ” or Chinese idioms. During the course of this short study, their history and origins are demystified, their fundamental characteristics described and analyzed, and finally a comparison of their importance and use both in past days and modern times is drawn with a hint towards its impact on the language learning process of non-native speakers.
Keywords: idiom, Chéngyǔ, classical Chinese language, intrinsic meaning, polysyllabism, compositionality, four-character form, parallelism, symmetry, motifs, Yànyǔ.
An idiom is a phrase or expression used in specific, recurring contexts, that is characterized by a non-literal meaning or a grammatically atypical use of words, employed for rhetorical or vivid effect. They provide an interesting historical and cultural insight into languages and thought processes of different ethnicities across the World, and are therefore the object of many cultural and linguistic studies. There are numerous proverbs, sayings and idioms in every language. The Chinese language is no exception to that rule. With a written history of over 3000 years, China is one of the world’s four ancient civilizations and has consequently accumulated a truly astounding set of idiomatic expressions. According to the most stringent definition, there are about 5,000 idioms in the Chinese language, although there are some dictionaries which include a list of over 20,000 expressions. Which leads us to formulate the following questions: What is the history behind Chinese idioms and their origins? What are their most prominent characteristics? And finally, what is their cultural role and significance both in ancient and modern China?
History and origins
Chinese idioms, or “Chéngyǔ” (成語 – lit. “[already] made/formed words/speech”), are very difficult to pinpoint in time, but the earliest record of them can be traced back to around 1046–770 BC, the era of “Shi Jing”, or “Classic of Songs”, which is the first poetry collection in China compiled in the pre-Qing period.
The vast majority of Chinese idioms are derived from stories handed down from generations and featuring historical, quasi-historical, legendary, or mythical persons or events. They are strongly linked to the classical Chinese language, or “Wényán” (文言文 “wényánwén” or 古文, “gǔwén”) and as such rooted in ancient literature, including the pre-Qin classics, the poetry from all periods of Chinese history, and the late imperial vernacular novels and short stories. A small number of them were constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries from Western literature, mainly through the medium of translation. Throughout time, with the spread of literacy and popularization of education among the Chinese population, a great number of poetic lines, quotations extracted from the classics (the Four Great Classical Novels (四大名著) to cite but a few – “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, “Journey to the West”, “Water Margin” and “Dream of the Red Chamber”), poems, and other standard works as well as common sayings of high literary quality became conventional in society. Consequently, they were widely used by the common folk, and also adopted by scholars in their literary writings. Those which survived the test of time and appeared in many a popular literary writing immediately secured their status as idioms.
First and foremost, Chinese idioms are terse and vigorously expressive. Despite their limited, case to case use, they incorporate a deep intrinsic meaning that allows to say more, with less. That could be attributed to the fact that they use the vocabulary and follow the syntactic rules of Literary Chinese. Classical Chinese permits to convey information in a more compact fashion than modern Chinese does, seeing as nearly all words are comprised of one syllable only, whereas modern Northern Chinese varieties such as Mandarin use two-, three-and four-syllable words. This polysyllabism evolved in Chinese to disambiguate homophones that result from sound changes.
Apart from their powerful cultural and historical connotation, Chinese idioms have a distinct four-character form which complies with the classical sentence structure of classical Chinese based on parallelism and/or symmetry. The logic behind it is that the evenness of the four-word line could easily produce a rhythm, much like in music, which makes it easy to verbalize and memorize. Although there are Chéngyǔ that consist of three, five, six or eight characters, they are comparatively rare and in itself the term Chéngyǔ is generally recognized to signify the four-character variety.
Additionally, Chéngyǔ are figures of speech that contradict the principle of compositionality for the most part, which means that the meaning of the entire expression can rarely be derived from the meaning of its individual components. Consequently, the meaning of a Chéngyǔ usually surpasses the sum of the meanings carried by its characters, which is fitting seeing as they are generally meant to convey only the message or moral of the myth, story or historical event from which they were derived.
Moreover, Chinese idioms not only serve as a guide through Chinese history; considering their link to interesting tales and historical or semi-historical happenstances and figures, but can also promote a better understanding of the Chinese mindset and culture in general by teaching us about motifs that were common in Chinese ancient literature and customs. As such, three main themes can be identified:
- natural motifs inherent to China’s climate and topography, such as mountains – (山 (shān), water – 水 (shǔi) or the Moon – 月(yuè) etc.);
- military and government-related themes, which lead to a better understanding of certain cultural customs;
- moral values such as filial piety, honesty, hard work, dedication and so on, which many idioms promote, which were relevant in the past and continue to be in present days.
Last but not least, Chéngyǔ are vastly different from other types of formulaic language in Chinese, such as proverbs (Yànyǔ谚语). While Yànyǔ are the accumulation of thousands of years of peasant-based culture and wisdom, Chéngyǔ are infused exclusively with literary idioms and set phrases. Moreover, Chéngyǔ differ from other fixed expressions found in Chinese such as common sayings and phrasal verbs because Chéngyǔ are always non-compositional and are intimately linked with the myth, story or historical fact from which they were derived.
Cultural role and significance in ancient and modern sociocultural context
In the past, understanding Chéngyǔ was the prerogative of the wealthy and educated. These quotations of prominent works, of refined literature and poetry were used both as a means of supporting one’s ideas and arguments in the context of an article or piece of writing, and a stylistic choice meant to embellish, prove one’s erudition and prompt the admiration and appreciation of a select crowd.
Nowadays, while far more accessible and understood by people nation-wide, only about 500 to 600 Chéngyǔ are commonly used in newspapers and magazines, and even less in the context of TV shows, movies, speeches, and day-to-day conversation. This may be attributed again to the fact that less and less people have an intimate understanding of classical Chinese.
Chinese idioms remain to this day an important part of Chinese language and culture, underlying its uniqueness and preserving for future generation a wealth of important historical events or cultural reference points, and as such, if used correctly, they can succinctly capture the essence of complex situations and display a speaker's eloquence as well as his sophisticated understanding of Chinese culture and society. At the same time, a limited understanding of those contexts can severely hamper one’s understanding of the meaning. Which in turn creates a serious barrier for non-native speakers laboring to acquire the language and perceive the culture.
- Horn G.M. Idioms, Metaphors, and Syntactic Mobility / George M. Horn // Journal of Linguistics. – 2003. Vol.39. Is.2. – P. 245-273.
- Lo W.H. Best Chinese Idioms / Wing Huen Lo. – Boston, 2003. – 306 P.
- Guo J. Learning Chinese Idioms. A Luxury or Necessity for the CFL curriculum? / Jiaqi Guo // Teaching and Learning Chinese in Higher Education. – Routledge, 2017. – P. 83-108.